Beth Stebner
March 17, 2015 12:17 pm

Imagine this: you’re at the office, minding your own business and eating a sad desk lunch while trying to finish your latest project when — out of nowhere — your coworker’s iPhone starts blaring the latest Kesha song.

And just like that, you forget what you were doing all the while your deadline is creeping ever closer. But all is not lost. Even though you’re easily distracted, we have some very good news: It might just mean you’re a creative genius.

A fascinating new study out of Northwestern University links the inability to deal with “irrelevant sensory information” like construction, noisy eaters, and yes, even a raucous coworker to a higher real-world creativity.

The study cites other brilliant minds like Charles Darwin, Franz Kafka, and Marcel Proust who also had the distraction disease. The French novelist and essayist was so sensitive to outside noises that he slept in a cork-lined bedroom and worked with earplugs in to filter out sounds.

And Kafka once said of his work: “I need solitude for my writing; not ‘like a hermit’ — that wouldn’t be enough — but like a dead man.”

Darya Zabelina, the lead author of the study, says the brain starts filtering out “irrelevant sensory information” early. It’s a totally involuntary action, some people have a “leaky” sensory gate, meaning they aren’t able to filter out distracting sounds and sights as well as others.

Look at that as a double-edged sword — though people with “leaky” gates have more difficulty filtering out distractions, they also tend to look at things in non-conventional ways, making them much more creative and innovative than someone who looks at the world in black and white.

Here’s how they performed the study. The researchers at Northwestern studied 97 participants, testing them on a Creative Achievement Questionnaire, measuring their real-world creativity in art, dance, theater, writing, and inventions, and then asking them to perform a test of divergent thinking, or trying to solve a problem by exploring every possible solution.

The next step was to see how the test subjects responded to sound. Participants were put in a soundproof room while researchers played a consecutive clicking noise. Most participants responded most strongly to the fist click and filtered out the subsequent ones.

Those who didn’t filter out the clicking noises as well (the people with “leaky” gates) had many more real-world creative achievements in art, music, and science, and were better able to make connections between concepts and ideas, according to researchers.

So really, it’s all about being able to deal with your “leaky” gate.

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

Whether or not that means wearing earplugs 24/7 and installing a soundproof room is your call.

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