Those are questions addressed by researcher JongHan Kim in a study titled, logically enough, “Physical Activity Benefits Creativity: Squeezing a Ball for Enhancing Creativity.” Studies in embodied cognition both fascinate and puzzle me. The assumption of embodied cognition is that the things we do with our bodies affect our thinking. That isn’t surprising, except when the impact appears amazingly literal. Would we actually come up with more flexible ideas if we literally sat outside a box? Some researchers find it so.
In this pair of studies, Kim had college students complete measures of divergent and convergent thinking while squeezing either a soft squeezable ball or a hard one. Why squeeze a ball at all? As it turns out, in Korea “Squeeze your head!” is a common expression used when someone wants to encourage another to come up with a new idea. If squeezing a ball causes us to embody squeezing out an idea, perhaps it might influence divergent thinking. Kim hypothesized that squeezing a soft changeable ball would help students come up with more different (changeable) ideas, while squeezing a hard ball would be more beneficial to tasks with one correct answer. And that, indeed, is what Kim’s results determined. There was no explanation of the mechanism behind the phenomenon, just unexplained and curious data.
I’m frankly not sure what to make of this, except to wonder again at the magnificent complexity of the human mind. How widespread this phenomenon might be is for future research to determine. For now, if you are trying to come with many ideas—or help students do so—and find yourself stuck, you might just want to grab a stress ball and try squeezing. You never know, it might help.
Kim, J. (2015). Physical activity benefits creativity: Squeezing a ball for enhancing creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 27 (4), 328-333.