Lightbulbs over the head actually do give insight!

A friend of mine and fellow grad student in the Tufts Psychology Department (Mike Slepian) recently had a paper come out that’s been getting some press lately. Interestingly enough, it relates to the common cartoony emblem of the lightbulb above the head. This symbol is a conventional sign for “inspiration” in comics and cartoons, so the authors wanted to see if real lightbulbs could actually give people inspiration.

Lo and behold — they did! In a series of experiments, participants were asked to do logic problems and near them light was turned on from either a lightbulb or an ambient overhead light. Participants with a lightbulb consistently completed more logic problems correctly than those with the overhead light.

This indicates that, not only do the conventional signs of a lightbulb represent inspiration, but that meaning has become entrenched enough that it actually feeds back on performance in cognitive tasks. That is, the graphic symbolism has affected the way we think and behave.

The idea that language effects thought and behavior is called “linguistic relativity” or Whorfianism and is a highly contentious debate. The vocabulary of visual language may have some degree of linguistic relativity as well — at least for this particular sign. I’d love to see more research like this with other graphic signs. I’m not sure what my prediction would be, but it’d certainly be interesting…

Slepian, M.L., Weisbuch, M., Rutchick, A.M., Newman, L.S., & Ambady, N. (2010). Shedding light on insight: Priming bright ideas. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 696-700.


  • Hey, nice work on this site and keep up the good work. I've got some questions though.

    You seem to have some "art perspective" claims in your "Eye Graphic Semiosis" on pages 44-45, e.g.: "vast amounts of knowledge required to draw…", "necessitates at least a basic understanding of anatomy…", "technical knowhow…", "how light reflects off surfaces…". Contrast to some of your later claims: "I think drawing has to do entirely with formulating a mental storage of 'structures of drawing'…", "drawings (especially in sequence) constitute a system of communication…", "we lack the recognition that drawn works use a set of mental patterns….", "Being "fluent" is to have proficiency in a shared set of conventions or regularities…".

    Have your opinions on these things changed over time or are these claims somehow not contradictory after all? Some clarification would be nice.


  • Thanks very much for the comments! You make some very good observations there.

    I wouldn't say that my opinions have really changed since then, and I also don't think they are contradictory. In that paper I'm trying to describe the extant to which all graphic signs relate to each other.

    So, since people do draw in highly realistic ways that require a lot knowledge about anatomy, shading, etc. I'm trying to give a cognitive space to where those belong in relation to cartoony ("haplotic") images.

    However, this is not to say that I believe this is what people are predisposed for. BUT… explaining that is quite a long issue, and since it's an interesting one I'll save it for a complete post unto itself!

    Thanks for the topic… Stay tuned!

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