How this laughing baby video can make you smarter

Behold the famous “laughing baby” video. Since it was first posted in 2006, this infant’s crazed giggle has been viewed 4,771,042 times. Odds are you’ve viewed it yourself, and it momentarily made you giggle too.

But did you suspect that it also made you smarter?

According to a group of researchers at the University of Western Ontario, it actually can. The team — led by grad student Ruby Nadler — were interested in the way that emotion affects our thinking abilities. Cognitive scientists have known for some time that being in a good mood improves many aspects of thought; in particular, it boosts your “cognitive flexibility” — your ability to detect unusual relationships between things, and to figure out new, different ways to solve problems.

Nadler wondered whether a good mood would also improve your “category learning” — in other words, your ability to look at a set of items and figure out patterns and attributes that group them into categories. But what’s the best way to put people in a good mood?

Goofball Youtube videos, of course! Nadler and her team took 87 subjects and randomly assigned them to different groups. Some were given music and videos designed to make them sadder (like the main theme from the movie Schindler’s List, or a TV news report from the Chinese earthquake in April). Others viewed and heard material that seemed neutral, while a third group was subjected to material designed to make them smile — including Mozart music and that laughing-baby video.

After having their mood set, the subjects performed a test: They looked at some pulsating “Gabor patches” (groovy video of similar ones here) and tried to formulate a set of categories that accurately described them. The results?

Happier folks did significantly better. Subjects who’d watched the happy-baby video and listened to Mozart picked the right categories roughly 15% to 20% more frequently than those who’d watched the sad stuff. (Those who’d seen the “neutral” videos performed about as well as the “sad” people.)

So! Maybe we shouldn’t feel bad about spending so much time flaking out with stupid, funny videos online. As Nadler argues in this press release, we might simply be seeking a way to temporarily goose our creative brainpower:

“If you have a project where you want to think innovatively, or you have a problem to carefully consider, being in a positive mood can help you to do that,” Nadler says … Nadler also thinks this may be a reason why people like to watch funny videos at work. “I think people are unconsciously trying to put themselves in a positive mood” — so that apparent time-wasting may actually be good news for employers.

Obviously, this is a preliminary finding, and Nadler’s speculation about workplace Youtube surfing is just that — speculation.

But I have to admit, I’m a sucker for research that suggests there’s an upside to the sort of brain-parking, time-wasting Internet surfing that so annoys employers. Obviously, one can waste way too much time online at work. (Just ask the SEC’s pornhound employees about that one.) But the opposite is also true. Modern desk jobs have been so ruthlessly Taylorized — and employees given so few opportunities to productively rest their minds (going for a nice walk is the best way to get your problem-solving juices flowing, and how many firms allow that?) — that it’s no surprise employees turn to the one reliable mood-stabilizing substance at hand: The interwebs. In a similar vein, Brent Coker, a management professor at the University of Melbourne, studied the work habits of 300 employees and found that those who zone out online “within a reasonable limit” — less than one-fifth of their workdays — are more productive by 9% than those who don’t. Coker’s work is still undergoing review before publishing, but if this result holds up, it’s possibly because vanishing into a Wikipedia black hole rests our brains, allowing us, upon emerging, to reapply our noses to the corporate grindstone with a renewed, bottom-line-enhancing vigor.

But hey! Why not blow off one-fifth of your workday right now by reading the happy-baby resarch paper yourself? It’s here online for free.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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