Scientists from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) have found that the air quality indoors can have an impact on creativity. In collaboration with air filter manufacturer Camfil, the NTU Singapore researchers conducted a study which revealed that high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have a negative effect on creativity. VOCs are gases released by various products such as detergents, pesticides, perfumes, aerosol sprays, and paint. The study involved participants building 3D models with LEGO bricks, and a statistical analysis estimated that reducing total VOCs by 72% could enhance creativity by 12%.
Total VOCs (TVOC) is an indicator of the volume of VOCs present in the air. These compounds are emitted from sources such as paints, carpets, detergents, and air fresheners. The study, conducted on the NTU Smart Campus, is part of a partnership between NTU and Camfil to explore the impact of indoor air quality on cognitive performance and develop clean air solutions. The findings, published in Scientific Reports, emphasize the significance of indoor air quality on creative cognition.
Assistant Professor Ng Bing Feng and Associate Professor Wan Man Pun, Cluster Directors for Smart & Sustainable Building Technologies at the Energy Research Institute, led the research team. The team highlights that while people generally associate indoor air quality with lung effects, their study shows it can also impact the mind and creative cognition. The findings have implications for industries that rely on creativity, such as artists who frequently use paints and thinners emitting high levels of VOCs. Minor adjustments in the workplace, such as reducing the use of aroma diffusers and ensuring adequate ventilation, can positively affect employees and their productivity.
To assess creativity in the study, the NTU team developed the Serious Brick Play method based on the LEGO Serious Play framework. This method involves participants expressing their thoughts and ideas through 3D models built with LEGO bricks. Participants provided written descriptions of their models, and a panel of judges evaluated both the descriptions and LEGO models for creativity. The researchers tested the scoring guidelines and concluded that they were reliable.
The Serious Brick Play method measures divergent thinking, the process of generating creative ideas, as well as convergent thinking which focuses on finding a single solution to a problem. Both processes are central components of creativity, and the method covers divergent and convergent thinking.
Over six weeks, the study gathered data from 87 undergraduate and postgraduate students in a controlled environment simulating an indoor workspace. Each week, participants were given a global issue summary and asked to build a LEGO model offering a solution. The researchers varied the air quality of the workspace using different combinations of air filters, measuring participants’ creative solutions. The analysis showed that higher TVOC levels were associated with lower creative potential, while relationships between PM2.5 and carbon dioxide levels were less significant.
Assistant Professor Ng highlighted that the results indicate a link between pollutant concentration and creativity levels. Therefore, improving indoor air quality could be an economical solution to enhance occupants’ creativity. The research team is now exploring how TVOC and other indoor air pollutants affect cognitive processes by measuring participants’ brain activity.
1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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