In our everyday life we are constantly bombarded by sensory information, but some people seem to be more affected by this sensory input than others, or you may say some people have “leakier” sensory filters than other people. There are numerous anecdotal accounts of eminent creative people being especially sensitive to noise. Marcel Proust, for example, wore ear-stoppers because he was unable to filter out irrelevant noise, and lined his bedroom with cork to attenuate sound. Richard Wagner noted “a master needs quiet; calm and quiet are his most imperative needs.” And Franz Kafka asserted “I need solitude for my writing; not ‘like a hermit’ – that wouldn’t be enough – but like a dead man.” Others, such as Charles Darwin, Anton Chekhov, and Johan Goethe also strongly lamented the distracting nature of noise.

Our recent work provides first physiological evidence that creativity may indeed be associated with the reduced ability to filter our “irrelevant” sensory information. Specifically, we find that people with real-world creative achievements are less likely to filter out sound than their less creative counterparts. Additionally, they do it involuntarily, as this happens very early in the processing stream—only 50 ms after the onset of the sound.

Reduced sensory gating is akin to reduced latent inhibition, or a reduced ability to screen or inhibit from conscious awareness stimuli previously experienced as irrelevant. Thus reduced latent inhibition may enhance creativity by enlarging the range of unfiltered stimuli available in conscious awareness, thereby increasing the possibility that novel and useful combinations of stimuli will be synthesized. Therefore leaky attention may underlie both costs and benefits of creative cognition: Noise and other environmental stimuli can serve as distractors for creative people, leading them to make errors on some tasks, as well as generally making their life less comfortable. At the same time, leaky attention may help people integrate ideas that are outside the focus of attention into their current information processing, leading to creative thinking.

In our study, 97 participants reported their achievements in creative domains via Creative Achievement Questionnaire, as well as performed a test of divergent thinking, generally considered to be a laboratory test of creative cognition. On this test 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. Thus we had two different measures of creativity: a number of peoples’ real-world creative achievements, and a laboratory measure of divergent thinking.

After measuring participants’ creativity, we assessed their sensory gating. Participants were placed in a sound-proof chamber while wearing an electroencephalography (EEG) cap, and heard auditory clicks. Specifically, they heard a number of pairs of consecutive auditory clicks, occurring in close temporal proximity (500 ms) to each other. We then measured participants’ physiological response that occurs 50 ms after the onset of each click, i.e., P50 event-related potential (ERP). An average person typically shows a stronger physiological response to the first click, and inhibits, or filters out to some extent the second click, because the clicks are exactly alike and are presented so closely to each other. Thus, an average person shows sensory inhibition, or sensory gating, as assessed by the P50 ERP.

When we considered sensory gating with respect to real-world creative achievement, we saw that people with high creative achievements didn’t inhibit or didn’t gate as much of the sounds compared to people with fewer creative achievements. Interestingly, people who performed well on the laboratory measure of divergent thinking showed increased sensory gating (better filtering) compared to lower divergent thinkers. This could be the result of the administration instructions of the current divergent thinking tests, on which a limited amount of time to provide responses may rely on successful sensory inhibition.

We also considered academic achievement as a potential contributor to the associations between creativity and sensory gating, yet in an analyses controlling for academic achievement the associations remain. Additionally, the associations are specific to very early sensory processing (i.e., P50 ERP), as there were no correlations between either creative achievement or divergent thinking and later ERP components, which happen 100 or 200 ms after the onset of the sound (i.e., N100 or P200).

Thus, real-world creative achievers appear to have reduced filtering of sensory information, which may be the mechanism for their wider focus on a larger range of stimuli, and their ability to make connections between distantly related concepts or ideas. In conjunction with other protective factors, such as cognitive control, reduced sensory gating may be what is needed for real-world creative achievements. In the absence of strong cognitive control (or other protective factors), leaky sensory processing may be a risk factor for attention disorders and/or psychopathology.

The link between reduced sensory gating and creative achievement is particularly intriguing given that the P50 ERP is viewed as a marker of vulnerability to some psychopathology, particularly schizophrenia, and a rather debated view that creativity and psychopathology may be related. Indeed, our recent investigations report that real-world creative achievement is associated with several dimentional psychopathology measures, namely psychoticism and hypomania, while divergent thinking is not associated with any psychopathology measures (Zabelina, Condon, & Beeman, 2015). Thus it is possible that some risk factors that are associated with elevated psychopathology, such as leaky sensory gating, might also, in combination with other factors, be a "risk" factor for increased creative achievement, as previously suggested. Therefore for some prominent creative achievers who complained about noise as a source of distraction, the same leaky filters may have facilitated their creativity.

For further reading

Carson, S. H. (2011). Creativity and psychopathology: A shared vulnerability model. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 56, 144-153.

Kasof, J. (1997). Creativity and breadth of attention. Creativity Research Journal, 10, 303-315.

Zabelina, D. L., Condon, D., & Beeman, M. (2014). Do dimensional psychopathology measures relate to divergent thinking or creative achievement? Frontiers in Psychology. 5, 1-11.

Zabelina, D. L., O’Leary, D., Pornpattananangkul, N., Nusslock, R., & Beeman, M. (in press). Creativity and sensory gating indexed by the P50: Selective versus leaky sensory gating in divergent thinkers and creative achievers. Neuropsychologia.

About the Author

Darya L. Zebelina, M.S.

Darya (Dasha) Zabelina is an NSF Graduate Research Fellow at Northwestern University studying cognitive processes, affective processes, motivation, personality and creativity.

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