Distractions: Fueling your Inner Genius?

By Natasha Mathur, Behavioral Neuroscience, 2018

It is hard to imagine exactly what differentiates people between good and great, but based on what is known about quite a few great minds there is one common occurrence. Marcel Proust, Charles Darwin and Richard Wagner were all plagued by the inability to tune out distracting noise. In spite of this, the three men were all extremely creative and innovative in their ways of thinking, and they were all able to excel in their fields.

But what made them achieve so much more than all their competitors? What caused them to become the envy of so many? There have been and will no doubt continue to be studies on this, but very recently scientists at Northwestern think that they have uncovered something important.

The human body encounters thousands of different stimuli everyday — the feel of carpet on the bottom of your feet, the wailing of an ambulance rushing past, just to name a few. In addition to recognizing these novel stimuli, the human body, more specifically the brain, is also able to filter them out. When the body does this, we no longer focus on what our feet feel, we forget the ambulance in the background, and focus on whatever needs our immediate attention — while everything else becomes background noise.

In order to be most productive, most people prefer to filter out things that are not relevant to what they are working or focusing their attention on. However, there are people who actually get their inspiration from these external stimuli. In a recent study done by Northwestern University and published in Neuropsychologia, researchers hypothesized that the inability to completely filter out external stimuli may be related to creativity.

Many great minds, for example Marcel Proust, have had trouble filtering out irrelevant noises. This may not be the hindrance that others believe it to be — this inability to focus just on the task at hand may have played a role in his literary achievements. The lead author of the paper, Darya Zabelina, stated that ““leaky” sensory gating, the propensity to filter out “irrelevant” sensory information, happens early, and involuntarily, in brain processing and may help people integrate ideas that are outside of the focus of attention, leading to creativity in the real world.”

So perhaps instead of disturbing Proust, the noises outside his window could have influenced his writing in a positive way. Maybe he was able to integrate the hullabaloo he heard outside into his work to make it more realistic and relatable. In order to understand the relationship between attention and creativity, scientists focused on “sensory gating,” which is the ability of the brain to filter sensory information based on what is important and what is not. For example, while cooking, your brain will most likely filter out any noise coming through the window so that you focus on the stove.

However, not all brains work the same. Some people are unable to filter as much external stimuli, which can cause them to be easily distracted. In order to measure sensory gating, the participants were asked to listen to two sounds per trial while staring at a cross on a screen. In order to determine a marker for sensory gating, scientists compare the “extent to which the second click is inhibited compared to the first click,” in other words how much the brain tunes out the second noise because it is no longer novel.

In this study 100 participants performed a two-part experiment. The first portion of the experiment involved the participants reporting their real-world achievements in creative areas. The second portion of the experiment involved a divergent thinking test, which is used to measure “creative cognition.” The participants were given several unlikely scenarios and had to respond within a certain amount of time. Based on the number, as well as the originality of the answer, the participant was given a divergent thinking score. The results of the study revealed that those who had divergent thinking were associated with selective sensory gating — meaning that more stimuli were being filtered out. The real-world achievements were associated with a “leakier” sensory gating system, meaning that less was filtered out.

Putting this information into the context of the real world, the findings are very influential. For example, nobody will ever know to what extent Proust’s sensory gating system was leaky, but we can now begin to imagine the toll it must have taken on him. Many of us take for granted the ability to focus our attention on one thing, but perhaps for many artists the inability to focus was a downfall.

There is no one thing that makes a genius; there are hundreds if not thousands of factors involved. But this study brings us one step closer to understanding how the mind of a genius may work, and how ideas and thoughts may be formed not from constant focus, but from the integration of our surroundings.

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