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How Light Bulbs Make You Smarter

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An illuminated light bulb is the universal symbol for having an idea. Anyone who has read the comics, or noticed the icon for an ideas blog (see right side of screen), is well aware of that.

But can looking at a light bulb actually improve insight?

It seems like a ridiculous question to ask, but it’s in line with a number of other experiments demonstrating how behavior or performance can be “primed” by showing participants certain objects. For instance, in a 2004 paper, researchers reported that people who were shown objects associated with business, like briefcases, became more competitive. This may explain why people who wear backpacks are such losers.

Anyway, in a recent study, participants were asked to perform a number of tasks including, for example, connecting four dots with straight lines without lifting  their pencils or retracing a line. After assigning the task, the researchers then either did or did not switch on an exposed light bulb in the room. When they switched on the bulb, more participants (44 percent) solved the puzzle in the allotted time, compared with 22 percent of the bulbless control group.

So, you might object, maybe the subjects just needed more light? To account for that, the researchers tried experiments with shaded light bulbs, but found that those didn’t improve the results. They also checked to see whether the light was affecting people’s moods — perhaps happier people are better at puzzles — but found no correlation there either. To quote from the paper: “The results of four studies suggest that exposure to an illuminating lightbulb primes bright ideas.”

However, flipping on a light bulb didn’t help with “non-insight” tasks, like algebra problems.

The moral: If you want to have better ideas, get rid of your lampshades.

(The paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, can be read here. The researchers who had this bright idea were Michael L. Slepian, Max Weisbuch, Abraham M. Rutchick, Leonard S. Newman, and Nalini Ambady.)

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