Creativity can be thought of as a process of breaking down walls between different ideas. Now, a team of researchers in China and the United States have taken that metaphor to entirely new levels by showing that breaking down walls in virtual reality can make people more creative in real life.

In their experiment, the researchers asked participants to complete a virtual reality task that involved a simulation of walking down a hallway. Doesn’t sound like the most exciting use of virtual reality, right?

The only catch was that some of the participants had the option to break down the walls in the hallway. The researchers described this is an “embodiment of the metaphor ‘breaking the rules.’”

Next, all participants completed a test of creativity. Of course, how exactly you test creativity is a complex question in its own right, but in this case the researchers used a task in which people are asked to think of as many uses as possible for an everyday object.

As it turned out, those who had been in the virtual reality that allowed them to “break down the walls” experienced fewer creative barriers as well. They thought of more uses for the everyday objects, and the uses they thought of tended to be more original. Further analysis of the data revealed that this success could be partly explained by higher levels of cognitive flexibility and of persistence.

According to the researchers, these results raise the possibility that “enacting metaphors such as ‘breaking the rules’ contribute to creative performance.” More generally, it also appears that participating in a virtual reality task can temporarily alter the way we subsequently approach actual reality.

These findings hint at interesting new ways of thinking about creativity. For example, who wouldn’t want a virtual reality task to help them get over creative block? Another possibility for future research would be to investigate whether knocking down actual walls makes people more creative, although that experiment might be a little more costly.

Image: Flickr/annie_buchholz