The Power of Distractibility

Do you experience difficulty in filtering interruptions out of everyday life? Do outside forces—sirens, a co-worker chewing loudly in the next cubicle over, the smell of cologne in a packed elevator, the roar of the crowd, or the buzz of an incoming email—make you feel as if you are constantly under assault?

No, this is not an ad for some new concentration wonder drug. Many of us suffer from the inability to stay focused. There’s even a name for it: reduced latent inhibition. It’s a phrase that sounds pretty serious. As you read this, maybe you’re starting to feel guilty, worrying that your life may be negatively affected by these rapidly pingponging thoughts. What if it interferes with your ability to get things done, to think complex thoughts and make contributions to the world?

It’s true that diminished focus might be a negative net result of heightened sensory awareness, but don’t despair. Harvard psychologist Shelly Carson and her team discovered something unusual when they looked at faculty members known for their creative prowess. The best of the best, the researchers found, were seven times more likely to have noticeable levels of reduced latent inhibition.

How could vulnerability to distraction lead to a greater creative output?

 Rather than a detriment, researcher Darya Zibeline of Northwestern University says that having a “leaky” sensory filter—a brain that struggles to filter irrelevant information from the environment—is linked with higher levels of creativity because these people simply process more information than their better-focused counterparts. And the more information a person can process, the wider their set of associative connections, which leads to a greater possibility of novel solutions.

History is rife with examples of well-known creative thinkers who suffered from easy distractibility. Charles Darwin, Marcel Proust, and Franz Kafka all reportedly had a hypersensitivity to sound, to the point where something as simple as a loud ticking clock could derail their thinking. But the flip side is that they were more likely to pick up on the linkage of everyday experience and its ties to more powerful ideas. After all, a young Darwin uncovered the connection between breeding livestock and the history of evolution—one that seemed to elude virtually everyone else at the time.

So the next time someone points out your lack of focus, remind them that you are simply living a more meaningful life, taking in more of the world’s beauty, and unearthing the hidden connections everywhere around you.

(Assuming you’ve paid attention long enough to read this far.)