Most of us think of an inability to block out distractions and sustain focus as a problem, one that, for some kids, sometimes results in medical treatment. But according to a new study, distractibility isn't always a reason to prescribe Ritalin.

The study out of Northwestern University was based on a simple observation--many of history's great artists and thinkers claimed that they were seriously distractible. Marcel Proust, for instance, lined the walls of his workspace with cork to keep things quiet, because he found himself unable to tune out noise. Franz Kafka and Charles Darwin were easily distracted as well. Is there something about being distractible that goes hand in hand with artistic or intellectual greatness?

The upside of distractibility.

To find out, lead researcher Darya Zabelina and her team measured a physiological marker of distractibility called sensory gating in 100 volunteers, while also asking the study subjects to report their real world creative accomplishments and complete a standard laboratory assessment of their creativity levels.

Some participants, the study revealed, had a harder time filtering out distractions. Their attention was "leaky" in that they were less capable of involuntarily keeping all those annoying sounds and other sensory stimuli from intruding on their thoughts. That might sound annoying (and no doubt it is if you're one of these folks trying to complete work in a noisy environment), but according to Zabelina's work, an inability to keep the world from leaking in can have a serious upside--greater creative accomplishment.

"Real-world creative achievement was associated with leaky sensory processing--or a reduced ability to screen or inhibit stimuli from conscious awareness," the research release explains. "The study suggests that creative people with 'leaky' sensory gating may have a propensity to deploy attention over a wider focus or a larger range of stimuli," which in turn may help them integrate innovative, left-field thoughts leading to more breakthrough ideas.

"If funneled in the right direction, these sensitivities can make life more rich and meaningful, giving experiences more subtlety," Zabelina commented.

To hit the coffee shop or cork the walls?

It's an interesting finding, but one that's seemingly at odds with other recent research showing that slightly noisy environments, such as a bustling coffee shop, can boost creativity.

Perhaps the two findings are simply directed at two separate groups of people. If you're like most of us and lack the sensitive soul of Kafka et al., the coffee shop research applies--feel free to get down to your local Starbucks and spur your brain out of its usual linear thinking with a bit of background chatter.

If you're the type with a hair-trigger capacity for distraction and an inherent gift for creativity, first give yourself a pep talk that your difficulties with focus and your innovativeness may very well be linked. Then, you might want to follow Proust's lead and do everything you can to keep intrusions to a minimum.

Do you find that a bit of background noise enhances or inhibits your creativity?

Published on: Mar 12, 2015
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