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See Inside March / April 2010

How Fantasies Affect Focus

Thoughts about love or sex make the mind more creative or analytical

Fantasizing about sex gets more than just your juices flowing—it also boosts your analytical thinking skills. Daydreaming about love, on the other hand, makes you more creative, according to a study published in the November 2009 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Previous research suggests that our problem-solving abilities change depending on our states of mind and that love—a broad, long-term emotion—triggers global brain pro­cessing, a state in which we see the big picture, make broad asso­ciations and connect disparate ideas. Sex, on the other hand—more specific and here and now—initiates more local processing, in which the brain zooms in and focuses on details. Researchers at the University of Amsterdam, Univer­sity of Groningen and Jacobs University Bremen wondered whether thinking about love might actually help people perform better on creative tasks, whereas imagining sex might prime people to do better on tasks requiring analytical thinking.

The researchers asked 30 subjects to imagine a long, loving walk with their partners and asked 30 others to think of casual sex with someone they did not love. Then they gave the subjects cognitive tests. As predicted, the love-primed ones per­formed much better on creative tasks and scored worse on analytical ques­tions, whereas the reverse was true of those who thought about sex. The researchers also subliminally primed a separate group of subjects to think about love or sex and got similar results.

“I was surprised about the strength of the effects,” says author Jens För­ster, a social psychologist at the University of Amsterdam. The re­searchers wonder whether the “big picture” perspective that lovebirds share strengthens their relationship, too, by helping couples overlook personal weaknesses and daily hassles.

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