Bad moods might help brain focus

CHICAGO -- A bubbly mood may enhance creativity, but feeling happy actually can hinder the ability to focus on a task, according to a new study. Researchers found that happy subjects did well when asked to be innovative, but they struggled when t...

CHICAGO -- A bubbly mood may enhance creativity, but feeling happy actually can hinder the ability to focus on a task, according to a new study.

Researchers found that happy subjects did well when asked to be innovative, but they struggled when they had to concentrate on a simple activity and ignore distractions.

The reason may lie in how humans are evolutionarily wired to process information, researchers said.

As the brain receives data from all of the body's sensory organs -- the eyes, nose, mouth, skin and ears -- it must decide what is immediately pertinent. Acting much like a spotlight, the mind focuses on the most important information, responding to the task at hand. Being happy can expand the size of the spotlight, giving the brain more room to roam, so to speak.

"Positive emotions can help you in breaking down those systems that ignore information," said Adam Anderson, psychology professor at the University of Toronto and a leadresearcher of the study, published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


"It's a good consequence," Anderson said. "By making you more distracted, it can make you a more creative problem-solver."

On the other hand, negative moods, drawn from fear, anger or disgust, are helpful in allowing people to focus on potential dangers or toxins in the environment. When people are anxious, for example, they tend to snap to attention quickly.

"It makes perfect sense: If for whatever reason you feel anxious, you want to close your focus of attention, whether it's a snake or a spider in your environment," said Ian Gotlib, a professor of psychology at Stanford University who studies how negative moods influence perception.

For the study, Anderson and his colleagues asked 24 college students to listen to two different kinds of music. A jazzed-up version of Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto No. 3" served to pep up the subjects, while a slow version of "Alexander Nevsky: Russia under the Mongolian Yoke" dampened their spirits. Both groups also were asked to come up with thoughts that matched the mood of the music.

When asked to come up with creative, common connections between three seemingly unrelated words, people did best in a positive mood, researchers found. To test subjects' ability to focus, they were asked to identify either an "H" or an "S" flashing on a computer screen while distracting letters zipped on either side.

Happy subjects had a more difficult time identifying the letters than did people who listened to music that invoked the suffering of the Russian people under Mongolian control.

Although the moods were artificially induced, researchers were able to detect significant differences in how information was processed depending on the subjects' emotional state of mind.

But office workers can apply these findings in the real world, Anderson said.


If an activity or project calls for innovative thinking, take a little time off to do something you enjoy and the ideas will start flowing, Anderson said.

"Play a little," he said. "You can come back to the problem with a broader view of how to solve it."

When Jim Schmidt, a creative partner at Downtown Partners, a Chicago-based advertising agency, needs to amp up creative thinking on the job, he'll do something enjoyable, such as taking a trip to a museum or a bookstore.

"You have stay in that right frame of mind," said Schmidt. "You could even look at the funniest thing on YouTube. The times when we are most creative is when we are relaxed and having fun."

The creative process actually comes in several stages, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, a professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif. In the initial idea incubation stage, being in a good mood allows the brain to consider a broader range of ideas.

"There is evidence that being in a good mood will make you more experimental, less in need of focusing immediately to eliminate things from your mind," Csikszentmihaly said. "You kind of play with ideas more openly."

Once the ideas are formulated, the brain works to rearrange the information it has gathered.

"Now your attention is very focused, but focused within that field," Csikszentmihaly said. "You are ready to finish the piece."


That process mimics much what goes on in the office of Steffan Postaer, chief creative officer at the Chicago office of Euro RSCG, a global advertising firm.

"The first week (of a campaign) is an ode to joy when you have time to think about an idea," said Postaer, whose portfolio includes the well-known Altoids "Curiously Strong Mints" campaign. "But then it's crunch time. ... I'm not the most happy-go-lucky guy in the hallway. I think that sometimes when you have a deadline, you can actually do a two-minute drill and have a great outcome."

Tight deadlines can invoke what Postaer calls a "healthy fear," which helps everyone focus.

"At my agency, think we're at our best when we're in triage, when everybody's scrambling to get it done," he said. "We have to stop the client's bleeding. Every day that you are wasting time analyzing, there's some other competitor taking your share away."

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