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Indoor air quality influences creativity

Researchers at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore), in collaboration with Camfil, a global air filter manufacturer, have discovered that office air quality significantly influences creativity.

The study revealed that high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – gases emitted from products like detergents, pesticides, perfumes, aerosol sprays, and paint – adversely affected creativity in individuals tasked with constructing 3D models from LEGO bricks.

Total volatile organic compounds

Based on a statistical analysis, the NTU team determined that reducing total volatile organic compounds (TVOC) by 72 percent could potentially improve an individual’s creative potential by 12 percent. 

TVOC is a measure of the concentration of volatile organic compounds in the air, commonly originating from interior decoration materials, household products, and other sources.

This study, conducted on the NTU Smart Campus, is part of a broader partnership between the University and Camfil. 

This collaboration aims to examine the impact of indoor air quality on adult cognitive performance, evaluate air filter technologies in tropical climates, and develop innovative, energy-efficient clean air solutions.

Impact of air quality on creativity

Professor Ng Bing Feng and Professor Wan Man Pun, leading the research team and serving as Cluster Directors for Smart & Sustainable Building Technologies at the Energy Research Institute @ NTU (ERI@N), emphasized the significance of their findings. 

“While most people would correctly associate indoor air quality with effects on the lungs, especially since we just emerged from a pandemic, our study shows that it could also have an impact on the mind and creative cognition, or the ability to use knowledge in an unconventional way,” said Professor Ng.

“Our findings suggest that relatively low TVOC levels, even if well within the accepted threshold, could impact an individual’s creative potential.”

Professor Wan highlighted the practical implications of these findings, particularly for creative industries. “This could have serious consequences for industries that rely on creativity for the bulk of their work. For instance, artists often use paints and thinners that release high levels of volatile organic compounds and may not know they need adequate ventilation to clear them from their workplace.”

“The findings also point to how making minor adjustments in the office, such as reducing the use of aroma diffusers or ensuring adequate ventilation, could positively impact employees and their productivity,” he explained.

Assessing creativity from air quality

To assess creativity, the NTU researchers employed the Serious Brick Play method, adapted from the LEGO Serious Play framework. This method involves participants building 3D LEGO models and providing written descriptions. These models and descriptions are then evaluated for creativity by a panel of judges.

“While the LEGO Serious Play framework has been used in various settings to unleash creative thinking and has even been used to support dementia patients, it does not have a quantitative assessment component and cannot systematically assess creativity. This is why we added a component to score participants on their creativity,” Ng said.

The findings suggest a notable link between air quality and cognitive functions, particularly creativity, underscoring the importance of maintaining healthy indoor environments in workplaces and other settings.

The study is published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.


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