Is Artistic Inspiration Contagious?

By Scott Barry Kaufman | August 4, 2016 | 0 comments

A new study tries to measure the impact of reading on creativity and the motivation to write.

“The central, final, inescapable fact is that inspired words create life in us because they are themselves alive,” wrote English classical scholar Cecil Maurice Bowra in 1955.

Did he have a point? Is inspiration contagious? Do inspired works of art inspire the audience to create works of their own? There is a long tradition in the humanities that suggests it does. Plato once argued that inspiration is transmitted to the audience through the Muse. Remarkably, however, this has only just been tested scientifically.

In a recent study, Todd Thrash and colleagues conducted the first ever test of “inspiration contagion,” using poetry as the vehicle. They looked at specific qualities of a text and the qualities of the reader. It’s a rich study, with 36,020 interactions between all of the variables! Here are the essential findings.

  • The more writers privately reported that they felt inspired while writing, the more the average reader reported being inspired. This is despite the fact that there was no actual contact between the reader and the writer other than the text itself! As the researchers note, “This finding attests to the power of the written word as a vehicle for sharing the peaks of human experience among individuals separated in time or place.”
  • The more the writers were inspired, the more an independent group rated the poems as insightful, pleasant, original, and sublime. However, only insightfulness and pleasantness had a positive impact on the inspiration of the average reader. In fact, originality had a negative effect on the inspiration of the average reader. It’s not clear why originality had a negative effect on transmission of inspiration, but one possibility is that originality produces discomfort in the average reader, and might make the reader consciously aware of the separation between the writer and reader.
  • Readers higher in openness to new experiences were more tolerant of the new and sublime. The more that the reader was open to new experiences, the more they experienced inspiration transmission, and the less the originality and sublimity of the text hindered transmission.
  • Reader inspiration was not the only outcome of writer inspiration. Writer inspiration also brought out feelings of awe and chills in the average reader. These feelings of enthrallment were transmitted particularly through the insightfulness and sublimity of the text. This is interesting, considering that both insightfulness and sublimity roughly correspond to truth and beauty. As the researchers note, “These findings link deeply felt bodily responses of the reader to a deeply felt motivation in writers, suggesting a resonance driven by a shared perception of what is true and sublime about the human experience.”
  • While poems written by writers who put in more effort were also more inspiring to the reader, effort did not predict any other emotions in the reader, such as awe or chills.

These inspiration contagion findings have far-reaching implications. First, for aspiring writers. Many consider the prospect of writing to be daunting, mostly because it is assumed that good writing requires drudgery and utter originality. Indeed, if thought in that way, writing does sound scary!

However, these findings suggest that good writing is more like talking, an expression of one’s inner state of being. Perhaps the most helpful way for aspiring writers to view writing is as a natural vehicle for capturing personal insights and expressing them. These insights can be valuable and inspiring to the reader whether or not they are also perceived as original or arising from intense effort. As Tolstoy put it:

People are taught how to write many-paged composition, without having anything they wish to say, on a theme about which they have never thought… This is taught in schools.

I really like the “self-as-author” metaphor that the researchers use: “The author confronts a blank page, unsure what to say, and the self struggles with an unwritten future… Both find their voice when inspired, and the author-self, at last, speaks with authority and authenticity.”

Inspirational writing speaks from a deep truth of the person writing it, which is often a deep truth that many of us can resonate with. As a writer, do not view writing as a separate activity, but as an expression of your deepest self and existential experiences.

There are also implications of inspiration contagion for spirituality and sacred texts, academic transmission, and interpersonal communication. We are often inspired by people who say things that we have all wanted to say, but we didn’t have the language to express it. Inspiration contagion also may play a role in both the origins and evolution of culture.

Clearly, the artist cannot be separated from the art. I hope to see more research along these lines. I’ll leave the last word here to the researchers:

The inspired writer participates in the sweep of history, producing a text that is not just valuable but that enlightens, inspires, and raises the hairs on the arms of future generation of thinkers.

© 2016 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved. This piece was originally published by Scientific American.

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About The Author

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., is scientific director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He conducts research on the measurement and development of imagination, creativity, and play, and teaches the popular undergraduate course Introduction to Positive Psychology. Kaufman is author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined and co-author of the book Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind (with Carolyn Gregoire).Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.


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