A study conducted last year by researchers at Northwestern University has linked creativity with an “inability to filter irrelevant sensory information,” with the startling implication being that those who have difficulty in shutting out sensory information while focusing on a specific task or creative project might, in fact, be showing signs of ‘genius.’

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According to their press release, it’s the first physiological evidence that real-world creativity may be associated with a reduced ability to focus. Researchers describe how some people are more sensitive to the daily bombardment of sensory information, a phenomenon which they describe as “leaky” sensory filters:

“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.

– Darya Zabelina, Lead Author of the study

In light of the current epidemic of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnoses amongst children — a condition viewed as more of a disability than an ability, much less a sign of creative genius — this research could prove extremely valuable to many parents and many children.

For this study, researchers investigated specific neural markers of a “very early form of attention, namely sensory gating, indexed by p50 ERP,” which is the neurophysiological response which takes places 50 milliseconds after stimulus onset. The researchers looked at how this neurophysiological response related to two different measures of creativity: divergent thinking and real-world creative achievement. Divergent thinking tests are timed laboratory measures of creative cognition, where participants are asked to produce several responses within a limited timespan.

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Approximately 100 participants were tested, all of whom reported their achievements in creative domains through a Creative Achievement Questionnaire developed by the researchers. The testing went as follows:

Participants were asked to provide as many answers as they could to several unlikely scenarios, within a limited amount of time. The number and the novelty of participants’ responses comprised the divergent thinking score. As a result, the researchers had two different measures of creativity: a number of peoples’ real-world creative achievements and a laboratory measure of divergent thinking.

The researchers discovered that real-world creative achievement is associated with leaky sensory processing, meaning a reduced ability to filter or inhibit stimuli from conscious awareness:

In the study, divergent thinking correlated with academic test scores and selective sensory gating — an increased ability to filter compared to lower divergent thinkers.

In direct 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 is associated with the leaky sensory filter.

Essentially, the study suggests creative people may have a disposition to display attention over a “wider focus or a larger range of stimuli.” Zebelina believes that if channeled in the right direction, these sensitivities “can make life more rich and meaningful, giving experiences more subtly.”

Being easily distracted has been a characteristic of some of the world’s most creative thinkers. One of literature’s the most influential writers, Franz Kafka, was quoted as remarking,  “I solitude for my writing; not ‘like a hermit’ – that wouldn’t be enough – but like a dead man.” Johan Goethe, Darwin, and Chekhov have also made clear their distaste for the distracting nature of noise.

Attention Deficit Creativity Disorder

As mentioned earlier, findings like these are concerning when compared against current attitudes towards ‘hyper’ children. The very suggestion that people who have trouble shutting out stimuli while focusing on a specific task could in fact be highly creative and intelligent clearly negates the stigma an ‘ADHD’ label (and perhaps other labels) holds.

In fact, according to data from the National Center for Learning Disabilities, only 1 percent of students who receive services for their apparent “learning disabilities” are enrolled in gifted or talented programs. “Students with learning and attention issues are shut out of gifted AP programs, held back in grade level and suspended from school at higher rates than other students,” they note.

This study may offer the the first physiological evidence suggesting that real world creativity might be associated with an inability, or a reduced ability, to filter out certain sensorial stimuli, but it’s not the first time researchers have brought up this issue. Plenty of other evidence exists to support the notion that we have simply failed to understand and recognize creative genius when we see it.

For example, recent work in cognitive neuroscience shows that both creative thinkers and those with an ADHD diagnosis show difficulty in suppressing brain activity that comes from the “Imagination Network.” There are no school assessments which evaluate creativity and imagination, as these traits would be difficult to measure and receive very little attention in our education systems. There is also a lack of protocols in place to help children use these strengths to their best advantage. (source)(source)

A broad body of research has already shown that people who show characteristics of ADHD are more likely to reach higher levels of creative thought and achievement compared to those who don’t show these characteristics at all. (source)(source)(source)(source)(source)(source)

Research has also demonstrated that these characteristics are associated with the broadening of attention, and those who have them tend to have a mental ‘filter.’ In other words, they choose what to give their attention to.

Scott Barry Kaufman, the Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, emphasizes how limiting and ultimately damaging our attitudes towards different ways of focusing can be:

Of course, whether this is a positive or a negative thing depends on the context. The ability to control your attention is most certainly a valuable asset; difficulty inhibiting you inner mind can get in the way of of paying attention to a boring classroom lecture or concentrating on a challenging problem. But the ability to keep your inner stream of fantasies, imagination, and daydreams on call can be immensely conducive to creativity. By automatically treating AHD characteristics as a disability – as we so often do in an educational context – we are unnecessarily letting too many competent and creative kids fall through the cracks. (source)

Another interesting piece of information to note is that in 2004, author Gary Davis reviewed a large portion of literature from 1961 to 2003 and identified 22 recurring personality traits of creative people, most of which were very positive and associated with the same personality traits as people who have been diagnosed with ADHD. Some of these traits included: independence, risk taking, high energy, curiosity, humor, emotional sensitivity, and artistic. Some of the negative ones included: impulsive, argumentative, and hyper active. He published his findings in his book Creativity is Forever.

This is definitely some interesting information to consider, especially if you are a parent whose child has been diagnosed with ADHD.

Related CE Article that goes more in-depth with regards to ADHD, the medical industry, and more: “4 Facts About ADHD That Teachers & Doctors Never Tell Parents


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