Indoor Air Pollutants May Wreak Havoc With Your Creativity

We know that poor indoor air quality can make us sick, but did you know that it may affect your work creativity? That’s what scientists at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore found.

In collaboration with the global air filter manufacturer Camfil on a shared research project, the NTU team found that high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from such products as detergents, pesticides, perfumes, aerosol sprays, and paint – affected study participants’ creativity when asked to build 3D models with anything-but-boring LEGO bricks.

It tested various air filter technologies in tropical weather conditions and delivered innovative clean air solutions with optimized energy efficiency.

Their findings, published in Scientific Reports in September, shed light on the importance of indoor air quality on our creative cognition: reducing VOCs by 72% could improve creative potential by 12%. The study also aligned with the Health & Society and Brain and Learning research clusters under the research pillar of NTU 2025, the University’s five-year strategic plan.

The NTU team developed a Serious Brick Play method, adapted mainly from the LEGO Serious Play framework, which involves expressing thoughts and ideas using 3D models built with LEGO bricks. A typical LEGO Serious Play session involves a facilitator introducing a challenge, which the participants then build with LEGO bricks. They then discuss their models with the facilitator and reflect on the building process.

In NTU’s Serious Brick Play method, participants do not discuss their models and share their reflections in a group. Instead, they provide written descriptions of their LEGO models, which are scored by a panel of judges for creativity based on the Creative Product Analysis Matrix model, which is used to grade creativity and has been validated in earlier studies.

Over six weeks, the researchers gathered data from 87 undergraduate and postgraduate students in a controlled environment simulating an indoor workspace. Every week, across three 40-minute sessions, the study participants read a summary of a global issue – such as climate change, mental health, and poverty – and then offered a solution by building a 3D model using LEGO bricks. They were then asked to give a written description and explanation for their models.

Scoring guidelines were based on:

  • Originality: whether the solution is usual or unusual,
  • Fluency: the level of elaboration in the description of the solution, and
  • Build: how sophisticated, complex, or aesthetic the solution is.

The results from the study indicate that creativity levels can be linked to the concentration of pollutants in a room. Ameliorating the air quality could be an economical solution to improve occupants’ creativity.

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