Real-World Creative Genius May be Linked to Distraction

First Posted: Mar 04, 2015 07:52 AM EST

Creative geniuses may have a bit of trouble concentrating and now, scientists have figured out why. They've looked at real-world creativity and found that it may be associated with a reduced ability to filter "irrelevant" sensory information.

"Leaky" sensory gating, which is the propensity to filter out "irrelevant" sensory information, happens early and involuntarily in brain processing.  In fact, it may help people integrate ideas that are outside of the focus of attention, leading to creativity in the real world.

In order to better understand sensory gating, the scientists looked at 100 participants. These volunteers reported their achievements in creative domains via the Creative Achievement Questionnaire. They also performed a test of divergent thinking, which is generally considered to be a laboratory test of creative cognition.

Divergent thinking tests are timed laboratory measures of creative cognition. In this latest study, divergent thinking correlated with academic test scores and selective sensory gating, which was an increased ability to filter compared to lower divergent thinkers. In contrast, real-world creative achievement was associated with leaky sensory processing, or a reduced ability to screen or inhibit stimuli from conscious awareness. This shows that these creativity measures are sensitive to different forms of sensory gating. Divergent thinking does contribute to creativity, but appears to be separate from the process of creative thinking that's associated with the leaky sensory filter.

"If funneled in the right direction, these sensitivities can make life more rich and meaningful, giving experiences more subtlety," said Darya Zabelina, lead author of the new study, in a news release.

It's possible that creative people with "leaky" sensory gating may have a propensity to deploy attention over a wider focus or a larger range of stimuli. However, there are downsides to this sensory distraction. For example, Kafka once said, "I need solitude for my writing; not 'like a hermit'-that wouldn't be enough-but like a dead man."

Currently, researchers aren't sure whether reduced sensory gating is a stable trait, or if creative achievers can modulate their sensory processing depending on task demands.

The findings are published in the journal Neuropsychologia.

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