Spotlight on Research: Prof. Nathaniel Barr on Creativity and Cognition

Barr photo

Photo: Nathaniel Barr

Nathaniel Barr joined The Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences as a Professor of Creativity and Creative Thinking in September 2015. Trained as a cognitive psychologist, his interests include perception, attention, memory, motivation, belief, reasoning, creativity, and the way that thinking interacts with technology.

Nathaniel’s research is framed in the context of dual-process theories of cognition. Dual-process theories conceptualize thinking as arising    from the interaction between two types of processing. Type 1 (intuitive) processing is automatic, effortless, and always ongoing. Type 2 (analytic) processing is controlled, requires working memory resources, and is used relatively sparingly.

Contradictory evidence exists as to whether engaging analytic thought is beneficial or detrimental to creativity. For his PhD research, Nathaniel conducted a series of experiments aimed at addressing this issue. In one study, people were found to be significantly better at understanding creative analogies when able to think analytically than when they were only able to answer via intuition. Importantly, their ability to comprehend equally complex but non-creative analogies was preserved, suggesting that analytic thinking was uniquely associated with creativity. In another study, relatively more analytic thinkers were better able to understand creative analogies, make remote associations, and generate original uses for an object than their more intuitive counterparts. These results support the view that analytic thinking is central to certain types of creativity. Given that the collective creative output of humans is unique in the animal kingdom, it seems to make sense that our uniquely human capacity to override our intuitions via analytic thought is implicated in creative thought. Some of this research was published in an article entitled Reasoned connections: A dual-process perspective on creative thought in a Special Issue on Creativity and Insight Problem Solving in the journal Thinking and Reasoning.

Much of Nathaniel’s other research has also focused on how individual differences in the way we think relate to consequential aspects of human experience. Nathaniel drew on the reasoning and decision-making literature to conduct novel experiments and develop theories about how people detect counterfeit currency for the Bank of Canada. He has also collaborated on papers that consider how individual differences in analytic thinking relate to differences in religiosity and moral judgments. Recently he co-authored a paper that was published in the Journal of Judgment and Decision Making entitled On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit (also see a commentary on the article and the authors’ reply). This work garnered extensive international media coverage (e.g., Forbes) and Nathaniel wrote a popular press piece on the role of the internet in the spread of bullshit.

Connecting his interests in cognition to his fascination with the internet and the implications this technology has for the future of thinking, Nathaniel published a paper in the journal Computers and Behavior entitled, The brain in your pocket: Evidence that Smartphones are used to supplant thinking. This work showed that weaker analytic thinkers were more likely to rely on search engines in their daily lives. This work garnered extensive media attention and was covered in print, radio, and television in over 700 media outlets in over 40 countries (e.g., Washington Post).

Nathaniel has many ongoing research projects. Here at Sheridan, he will be collaborating on a SRCA grant aimed at assessing the effectiveness of our creativity courses (see Milestones). He is also collaborating on a research project at the University of Waterloo examining whether the ability to focus attention in short intervals relates to grit and perseverance over the course of the lifespan (so far, it seems it does). He is also currently writing several theoretical papers on the cognitive underpinnings of creativity, including one on how the internet and instantly accessible knowledge influences creativity and innovation in society. He encourages you to connect with him at nathaniel.barr[at] if you’re interested in collaboration or conversation pertaining how the nature of the mind connects to human experience.