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It’s Not ADD! It’s Creativity!

So Jonah Leher at Frontal Cortex has this post up: Are Distractible People More Creative?  Well, being a distractible person who likes to believe she’s creative, I found myself clicking through – after, of course, getting distracted by a few other things, like making dinner while watching Head Rush and trying to catch up on Pharyngula.

Turns out there’s good news for the terminally distracted:

Consider a recent study by neuroscientists at Harvard and the University of Toronto that documents the benefits of all these extra thoughts. (It was replicated here.) The researchers began by giving a sensory test to a hundred undergraduates at Harvard. The tests were designed to measure their level of latent inhibition, which is the capacity to ignore stimuli that seem irrelevant. Are you able to not think about the air-conditioner humming in the background? What about the roar of the airplane overhead? When you’re at a cocktail party, can you tune out the conversations of other people? If so, you’re practicing latent inhibition. While this skill is typically seen as an essential component of attention – it keeps us from getting distracted by extraneous perceptions – it turns out that people with low latent inhibition have a much richer mixture of thoughts in working memory. This shouldn’t be too surprising: Because they struggle to filter the world, they end up letting everything in. As a result, their consciousness is flooded with seemingly unrelated thoughts. Here’s where the data gets interesting:  Those students who were classified as “eminent creative achievers” – the rankings were based on their performance on various tests, as well as their real world accomplishments – were seven times more likely to “suffer” from low latent inhibition. This makes some sense: The association between creativity and open-mindedness has long been recognized, and what’s more open-minded than distractability? People with low latent inhibition are literally unable to close their mind, to keep the spotlight of attention from drifting off to the far corners of the stage. The end result is that they can’t help but consider the unexpected.

One of the reasons I write at night is because I’m so very bad at filtering out distractions.  There’s less of that in the wee hours – noisy neighbors go to bed, Twitter and email slack off, phone doesn’t ring (not that I keep my ringers on anyway), cat’s usually mellowing on the couch and friends aren’t begging me to head out for some fun.  I still manage to lose incredible amounts of prime writing time haring off after tangential factoids, spelunking the intertoobz for things unrelated to my original query, and ten thousand other things unrelated to what I should be doing.  For instance, this paragraph just took me several minutes longer than it should have because I kept messing around trying to rid myself of minor discomforts, pulling up various and sundry songs, and thinking about a zillion other things.


If the research is right, that sort of distractibility is one of the reasons I can build worlds and tell stories.  Instead of cursing it, I should probably be reveling in it.  However, I got distracted on the way to the celebration.  Well, “The Human Stain” is an incredible song.  And my hair needed adjusting.  And Yoshitaka Amano and Michael Whelan are incredible artists, so of course I had to spend a moment appreciating their works on my walls.  Did I ever tell you about the time I talked to Michael Whelan’s wife?  She’d called in to order business forms for their gallery back when I worked for the printing company.  When I found out who she was, I asked her if I could ask a very personal question – how old is Michael?  (This was back before the intertoobz could answer each and every trivial question without having to embarrass oneself.)  She told me.  And I said, “Oh, thank the gods.  I wanted him to still be alive so he can do my cover art when I’m finally published!”  She laughed and said Michael would be delighted to oblige.  She’s a lovely person, and one of my fondest memories.  And yes, I still want Michael’s art gracing my novels.


Where were we?  Oh, yes.  Distracted people and creativity.  Righty-o.  So, this is the article I shall shove at anyone who accuses me of having ADD.  Look, it’s not illness, it’s inspiration!


Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just gotten distracted by something else…

Tip o’ the shot glass to Brian Romans.

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