Our culture holds interesting beliefs about creatives: We like to think they are obsessively focused people. We get this belief by watching artists work—they become immersed and absorbed when they paint a masterwork, direct a film, or act on stage.
It makes sense that artists work better with more solitude and more focus. This matches well with our conception of the lonely artist. But do creative people function in this single-minded, fiercely concentrated way all the time?
In a study done at Harvard and the University of Toronto in June 2001, neuroscientists found that creative people are actually more distractible than non-creative people.
The researchers discovered that latent inhibition—a subconscious wall that blocks irrelevant thoughts and stimuli—is actually lower in people with higher test scores in creativity.
In the study at Harvard, the test measured how well 100 undergraduates were able to block irrelevant stimuli. The neuroscientists proved that ‘creative eminent achievers’—students who tested extremely high in one area of creative achievement—were seven times more likely to have low latent inhibition.
Therefore, it seems that creative people are better able to absorb and digest random stimuli than non-creative people.
Creatives don’t filter the world around them; they take everything in. What are examples of high latent inhibition, you ask? Well, all animals are a prime example. Anything that is not important to what it’s doing is cut off from awareness.
U of T psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson explained the discovery:
This means that creative individuals remain in contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment.
The normal person classifies an object, and then forgets about it, even though that object is much more complex and interesting than he or she thinks. The creative person, by contrast, is always open to new possibilities.
This study seems to suggest that creativity is linked with open-mindedness and distractibility. Creative people are more open and curious to seemingly unrelated things. But simply paying attention to details and idiosyncrasies isn’t the whole story.
Intelligence is a factor
Creative people with low latent inhibition also need to be able to analyze and sort through this chaotic flood of thoughts. You take in a whole assortment of information, but detach yourself from petty reflections, and latch onto more important ones.
For example, a painter could get her inspiration by going out with friends and being social, but eventually she needs to cut off her social life, go home, and show up to the easel. An author might read a wide range of genres to get a fresh perspective for her next book, but she can’t let everything she reads influence her—she has to sort the good from the bad.
Balancing Distractibility with Productivity
Our world is filled with distractions, but they may not be as detrimental to creativity as we think. Maybe we just need balance. We should learn when to welcome incoming stimuli, and when to shut it off.
If we over-indulge in random thoughts, our openness to experience will eventually hinder our ability to create something with them. We want these awesome ideas and to make these insightful connections, yes, but our sole responsibility as creators is to bring them to life. We want to be productive.
Let your mind wander. You never know what accidental observation will add to your creative soup, so be open to anything.
But know when to get back to work.
For additional reading on this study of low latent inhibition and creativity, visit this link.
Image by CarbonNYC