The Link Between Leaky Sensory Filters and Your Inner Genius - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Link Between Leaky Sensory Filters and Your Inner Genius

The Link Between Leaky Sensory Filters and Your Inner Genius

By Meghan Walsh

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Because sensitivity might actually mean you’re stronger.

By Meghan Walsh

Some people can work in cafes and blissfully ignore the coffee grinders, chitchat and commotion. I cannot. Nor could Marcel Proust, who wore earplugs and lined his bedroom with cork to keep out any errant sound. And it’s not just me and my old buddy Marcel. 

According to new research out of Northwestern University,

creative types tend to have “leaky” sensory filters.

In less alarming terms, they tend to be more sensitive to the bombardment of the sounds and sights of daily life. The study, which measured brain activity while participants listened to clicking sounds, included both those who scored high on tests for divergent thinking — a fancy name for creativity — and those with real-world accomplishments, such as published papers or artwork. The common brains responded to the first noise and then ignored subsequent stimuli. But gifted achievers involuntarily paid as much attention to the follow-up clicks as the first. Annoying when you’re trying to focus? Yes. But the tortured may get a Cracker Jack prize with their curse. “It might be the precise mechanism that helps people to come up with novel, interesting ideas,” says Darya Zabelina, lead author of the study. “It’s a double-edged sword.”

For decades, divergent thinking was thought to be correlated to creative prowess. Zabelina and her colleagues, however, suggest that divergent thinking may be more a reflection of intelligence than of creativity. “The two don’t process the world in the same way,” says Zabelina, adding that follow-up research is needed before she can make conclusive statements. But a number of studies done over the past several years point toward the same conclusion, which may redefine how we think of creativity.  

James Kaufman, professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, warns that correlation does not equal causation. Creative minds are also known to be more likely to exhibit latent disinhibition and have ADHD — that doesn’t mean one leads to the other. Being a creative thinker no more means you’re destined to be Toni Morrison than it dooms you to being the future king of the slackers. And another thing: Proust is a genius. This study involved college students who self-reported their so-called successes. There is a difference, Kaufman says, between creative achievement and creative genius: “The best way to get more creative is still to practice.”

And if you’re not a true genius, bullet dodged? After all, Franz Kafka once said, “I need solitude for my writing; not ‘like a hermit’ — that wouldn’t be enough — but like a dead man.”

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