Last updated on April 21, 2014 at 5:21 EDT

Can Lightbulbs Actually Aid The Thought Process?

May 5, 2010

From the phrase “shining a light on” a topic to the cartoon depiction of a lightbulb signifying the formulation of a “bright” idea, light and enlightenment have been linked for decades.

Now researchers have discovered evidence that suggests that illuminated bulbs might actually help encourage the thought process.

According to the research, which was completed by Tufts University social psychologist Michael Slepian and colleagues, the object was to study whether cognitive insight could be primed by cultural artifacts–defined as “objects imbued with learned meaning tangential to their utilitarian purpose” by Slepian and his team.

“Specifically, we exposed participants to an illuminating lightbulb–an iconic image of insight–prior to or during insight problem-solving,” the team said in their paper, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

“Across four studies, exposing participants to an illuminating lightbulb primed concepts associated with achieving an insight, and enhanced insight problem-solving in three different domains (spatial, verbal, and mathematical), but did not enhance general (non-insight) problem-solving,” they added.

As part of their experiments, Slepian and his team gave 79 college students a three minute period in which they had to connect four dots, which were arranged in a square pattern, by drawing three connected lines without either lifting their pencil off the page or retracing an existing line. The success rate for those who had an incandescent light bulb were twice as likely to solve the problem as those who had a fluorescent light source.

Likewise, MSNBC.com’s Charles Q. Choi notes in a May 4 article, “Thirty-eight college students were given sets of three words and told to come up with another word that could form a compound with all three. For instance, a triad of words might consist of ‘print,’ ‘berry,’ and ‘bird,’ with the answer being, ‘blue.’ The light bulb led volunteers to solve 70 percent more triads correctly.”

“What I find most surprising about these results is that something as elusive as the process of insight can be influenced by a subtle feature of our environment,” Slepian told Choi. “Much research has discussed insight as if it’s something entirely internal to the person, that it’s something that happens within you, and what we found in several studies is that something external to you can influence insight.”

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