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Illustration Credit: Atipus
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Have you ever noticed that you find it difficult to ignore the chatter of a radio station playing in the background, or that your best ideas come not from where you were looking, but from something you saw out of the corner of your eye?
Your story fits with a new line of research that’s showing highly creative people tend to have minds that pay attention in a particularly “open” kind of way.
Specifically, psychologists say that people who’ve had creative success often have “leaky attention,” meaning that when they are concentrating on one thing, other irrelevant information can still seep into their consciousness (information that’s irrelevant to their current task, but potentially very useful longer term).
To switch metaphors, it’s as if creative types have an attentional system that’s less of a spotlight and more of a lantern that picks up a wide range of information (just as developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik says babies have). In contrast, most other adults have more of an attentional spotlight that zooms in on one thing at a time.
These laboratory findings could have real-life implications. If this idea of a leaky mind sounds like you, there could be simple ways you can exploit your mental style in some situations, while mitigating against it in others where it could be a drawback.
Let’s first look at the research. One relevant study published last month by psychologists at Northwestern University involved participants looking at a series of large letters made up of little letters on a computer screen (known as Navon figures), such as a large S made out of little Es or a large A made out of little Hs. Ahead of each one of these letter combos, a symbol appeared onscreen telling the participants whether to pay attention to the big letter or the little letters. The participants’ task was simply to indicate as fast as possible whether there was an S or H at the cued level – big or little.
This sounds super easy, but sometimes it was trickier than others because, for instance, the cue said to pay attention to the big H, but it happened to be made up of little Ss, rather than a neutral letter or, in the easiest version, little Hs. The key thing the researchers were interested in was how much the participants were affected by what was happening at the level they’d been told to ignore.
The important finding was that the more creative achievements that participants said they’d had in real life in 10 different domains including art, dance, and cooking, the more they tended to be distracted by what was happening at the level they’d been instructed to ignore. It’s as if the information at that level was leaking into their consciousness, even though to succeed at the task they needed to ignore it.
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.
Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s editor and creator of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog, a columnist on personality for BBC Future, and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. On Twitter @Psych_Writer. Please click here to check out several of his articles.