You’re not alone either: Many people given the label “genius” are often reported to be troubled and distracted by noise, such as Charles Darwin, Marcel Proust, and Anton Chekhov. Franz Kafka even once said: “I need solitude for my writing; not ‘like a hermit’ – that wouldn’t be enough – but like a dead man.”
Research by Northwestern University found that there is a link between creativity and an inability to filter out irrelevant noises. The study, published in Neuropsychologia in March, looked at the link between creative thinkers and different levels of "sensory gating," the involuntary neurological process that filters out unnecessary or irrelevant stimuli.
The researchers asked 97 participants to fill out a questionnaire called Creative Achievement Questionnaire, which assessed their real-world achievements in creative domains. They were also asked to perform a divergent thinking test, a technique commonly used in laboratories to assess creative cognition.
In a separate test, the participants were played a series of short beeps while scientists measured their brain activity, recording the involuntary neurophysiological response that occurs 50 milliseconds after an auditory stimulus.
Analyzing all this information showed that creative people were more sensitive to sound distraction. The study suggested that people with “leaky” sensory gating tended to be more creative as they have an ability to deploy attention over a larger range of stimuli. This increased input can lead to a richer and more nuanced experience, which can also help hone their ability to create associations with distant concepts or ideas.
Since “leaky” sensory gating happens early in brain processing and may help people integrate ideas that are outside their main focus of attention, a reduced ability to filter out the irrelevant things may lead to creativity in the real world, said Darya Zabelina, lead author of the study, in a statement.
She added, “If funneled in the right direction, these sensitivities can make life more rich and meaningful, giving experiences more subtlety.”
Of course, with less than 100 participants, this is a pretty small study to draw wide conclusions from. Furthermore, creativity is a very subjective thing to measure and not necessarily something a questionnaire can capture. So, if you’re getting stressed at the guy sitting next to you with blaring headphones, we don’t suggest you start professing your genius to him.