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Endlessly Distracted? Blame Your Own Creative Genius

Creativity is linked to an inability to filter out sensory information, a new study says.

[Top photo: White Packert/Getty Images]

Endlessly distracted by the sounds of your open office? Blame your own creative genius. A new study from Northwestern University psychologists finds that creative brains have a harder time filtering out unnecessary sensory stimulation, like excess noise.

The study's subjects filled out a questionnaire regarding their creative achievements in the fields of art, dance, music, architecture, creative writing, humor, scientific invention, and more. The researchers measured their "sensory gating"—the neurological process of filtering irrelevant environmental stimuli to keep your brain from being overloaded. The participants sat in a sound booth with headphones, while the researchers played two millisecond-long audible clicks and measured their brain activity through an EEG. While generally people ignore the click the second time they hear it, those with leaky sensory gating had just as great of a neurological response to the second click as they did to the first.

Real-world creative achievements—like, say, having a musical composition critiqued by a national publication or having other scientists cite your discoveries—was linked to a lower ability to block irrelevant stimuli, like the clicking sounds, from consciousness. Creative people may have a greater tendency to pay attention to a wide range of stimuli in their environment. "If funneled in the right direction, these sensitivities can make life more rich and meaningful, giving experiences more subtlety," lead author Darya Zabelina said in a press statement.

Feomothar via Shutterstock

A few limitations: the study sample was small, and specific. All 97 participants were young and white, between the ages of 18 and 30. Not exactly the full spectrum of human experience, so take the findings with a grain or two of salt.

However, the researchers’ explanation would make sense in historical context. Some of the greatest creative minds in history have been downright reclusive, perhaps because of a sensitivity to noise and other sensory input. Marcel Proust lived in a soundproofed apartment, lining his bedroom walls in cork to keep out noise. Franz Kafka claimed he needed solitude to write—"not ‘like a hermit,’" he wrote, "but like a dead man." E.B. White wasn’t quite as serious about his peace and quiet, but he did claim he couldn’t listen to music while writing. "I haven’t that kind of attentiveness," he told the Paris Review. See the full study in the journal Neurophyschologia.

Read more about the science behind creativity:

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