The conversation happening across the room, the alarmingly aggressive typing habits of a nearby colleague, the siren wailing past your office window: oh, for the ability to tune out distractions like these in order to focus 100 percent of your cognitive powers on the task in front of you. The value of laserlike focus and attention is clear — within the first few weeks of the new year, for example, publications like Fast Company, Harvard Business Review and the Huffington Post all offered their readers anti-distraction guides so that they may become better and more productive workers in 2016.
But perhaps you’ve tried these various tips and tricks and still can’t seem to filter out the distractions in your environment. This, it seems, is not entirely a bad thing. In a shift from the all-distractions-are-bad narrative, some research in cognitive psychology is revealing an unexpected bright side to having an easily distractible mind: People who are terrible at tuning out the nonsense around them also happen to be more highly creative than their more focused peers.
A classic test scientists used for studying an individual’s selective attention — in other words, the ability to tune out irrelevant information and focus squarely on the task at hand — is something called the Stroop Color and Word Test, the efficacy of which has been replicated in hundreds of scientific studies. Try it for yourself with our version below, which itself is based on a game designed by Boston College psychologist Joshua Hartshorne. We’ll be tracking how many you answer correctly, plus the amount of time it takes you to answer.
Hartshorne’s game has been played by more than 18,000 people, and he’s still in the early stages of analyzing the data. He and his colleagues are using it to test a number of different things, but generally, “it’s about executive function and executive control, which is a very fuzzy category in cognitive theory,” he told Science of Us. “It describes the intuitive notion of the ability to stay on task — to ignore distractions, to focus, things like that. If you think about it for a little bit, you realize being able to focus is important to do just about anything you want to do — it’s how we’re having this conversation right now.”
If you didn’t do as well on that game as you’d have liked — or if you are maybe not as focused in everyday conversations as you’d like — relax. Take, for example, a series of studies on something called latent inhibition, or your ability to filter out environmental information (i.e., distractions) that are irrelevant to the task at hand. People with high latent inhibition are good at tuning out noises and other distractions that have nothing to do with them. “An example of this might be if somebody is building something a couple doors away from you, and you hear a hammer pounding,” Shelley H. Carson, a Harvard psychologist who has studied the link between creativity and latent inhibition, told Science of Us. “The first time you hear it, you’ll be startled, because it’s a large noise. But when you realize it doesn’t have any relevance to what you’re doing, you tune it out.”
But on the other hand, Carson’s work has shown that high-achieving, highly intelligent creative individuals are seven times more likely to have a faulty latent inhibition filter — they never really get used to distractions like the cacophony of nearby construction workers, “and every time they hear the noise, they pay attention to it,” Carson explained.
In the parlance of a programmer, this may be more of a feature than it is a bug. If your filter is more “porous,” as Carson phrases it, then you’re taking in bits of information from your environment that others may be missing. This, in turn, may allow you to remix and recombine that new incoming information with what you already know, leading to novel ideas or solutions. As psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and science writer Carolyn Gregoire write in their fascinating new book, Wired to Create, a creative mind also often tends to be a rather disorganized one. “Reduced latent inhibition speaks directly to the concept of a ‘messy mind,’” they write, “as it reflects a mind that [is] tuning into greater amounts of information from its surroundings rather than automatically filtering and compartmentalizing.”
In the best of scenarios, the inability to filter out environmental distractions can lead to creative breakthroughs, something known as opportunistic assimilation. Instead of ignoring whatever has popped up that doesn’t immediately seem to be relevant to your work, what if you could use it instead? A famous example of this is Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin: Upon leaving for vacation, the scientist left the window to his lab open, which allowed some mold spores to come in from the outside and contaminate the bacteria he was trying to grow in petri dishes. As the story goes, Fleming quickly noticed that the mold killed all of the bacteria it touched. Voilà: the first modern antibiotic is born. “So he took something that happened in the environment and was able to use that in a creative way,” Carson said. “Sometimes, distractions — things we don’t notice, that don’t at first seem to be part of the problem we’re trying to solve — actually can help us solve creative problems.”
Overall, the link between creativity and distractibility ties in nicely with one of the main assertions Kaufman and Gregoire make in their book: that a creative mind is an open mind. This may even help explain why experiments since at least the 1960s have discovered a link between creativity and mental illness. “Being open to and curious about the full spectrum of life — both the good and the bad, the dark and the light — may be what leads writers to score high on some characteristics that our society tends to associate with mental illness,” Kaufman and Gregoire write, “at the same time that it leads them to become more grounded and self-aware.” Having an open mind means a lot more stuff is going to wander on in there, for better or for worse. “Everything is interesting, and you want to pay attention to it all,” Carson said.
But in the annoying, everyday scenarios, this can be a problem, for the obvious reasons. Sometimes you do have to filter out distractions. Alas, it’s not yet clear from the research whether it’s possible for a person to temporarily improve their latent inhibition. Instead of trying to train yourself to ignore distractions like email or texts, it may be better to avoid them completely, at least while you’re trying to get creative work done. Marcel Proust is said to have worked while wearing ear plugs; the 19th-century novelist Franz Kafka once said, “I need solitude for my writing; not ‘like a hermit’ — that wouldn’t be enough — but like a dead man.” Both men have a point.