I’m trying to concentrate. Would you mind?
I don’t have time for this.
Not now, I’m busy!
In our pursuit of the perfect American work ethic, we’ve developed a handy arsenal of dismissals designed to keep the door closed at all times. We like our solitude. It’s where creativity can quietly emerge, infecting us with a benevolent bug that allows words to come more easily and builds bridges between faraway dots. But could we be wrong about shutting out distraction?
Growing bodies of psychological research are finding noisy environments and the occasional interruption could be helping us more than they hurt — sometimes literally.
Creativity is just one skill that gets sharpened with distraction. Novel ideas, scientists are now learning, come from the alchemy of two or more seemingly unrelated items and seeing if a core truth percolates down. Locked doors to empty rooms may only serve to leave inspiration just outside our reach.
“People who have some type of real-world creative achievement appear to have more, what we call, leaky sensory gating,” said Darya Zabelina, researcher of cognitive processes at Northwestern University. “They physically let it more sensory information than people with fewer real-world creative achievements.”
These terms, “leaky sensory gating” and “real-world creative achievements,” are technical speak to describe people who can work in coffee shops all day long and still produce high-quality work. According to Zabelina’s research, in fact, they tend to produce even higher-quality work. They don’t find their creativity despite the din of caffeine-seeking patrons, but because of it.
Zabelina arrived at these conclusions after studying 84 people engage in a number of different tasks designed to measure creative output. One group engaged in exercises that relied on a form of brainstorming called divergent thinking. It gets people thinking about as many solutions as possible to a given problem, no matter how ridiculous. The problem doesn’t even have to be concrete: Stream of consciousness writing, bubble mapping, and meditation all use divergent thinking. The other form of creativity was real-world creative achievement — producing tangible works that have a clear structure, even if it’s abstract or avant-garde.
At the same time they were engaged creatively, Zabelina and her team issued subjects a memory test. Each subject was inside an fMRI scanner while they completed the test. The point of the memory test was to find out how each form of creativity affected the brain’s ability to let in sensory information. What the team found was that divergent thinking essentially locked the door; subjects did worse on the memory test. But people in the real-world creative achievement group let that same information in: Their sensory gates “leaked.”
“People are more sensitive to the world, they notice more, they have more information to choose from,” Zabelina said, “so they can come up with creative ideas.”
Focus Less, Feel Better
Screenplays and oil-painted canvases aren’t the only upside. Just about every pediatrician who’s had to give a shot has relied on another tangible benefit of distractions, which scientists are now observing directly in the brain: They reduce physical pain. More astoundingly, they don’t just reduce the sensation of pain. They reduce the actual signal.
Those are the results of a 2012 study that found painful levels of heat got transmitted to the brain as weaker nerve impulses when subjects were distracted. Christian Sprenger, of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, argues the finding could have important implications for cognitive-behavioral therapy, “as it could be extrapolated that these approaches might also have the potential to alter the underlying neurobiological mechanisms as early as in the spinal cord.”
If the prospect of therapy seems too involved, the research suggests a milder in-between. For problem-solving and an added dose of mindfulness, here too distractions seem to be essential.
We rack our brains at work, struggling to come up with anything that resembles a unique idea, but then come upon one revelation after another at home in the shower. In these instances, psychologists argue, our brains are essentially free to roam. Shampooing takes little cognitive effort (aside from the always vexing task of deciding how much shampoo to use), so your brain is freed up to tackle life’s bigger mysteries.
Similarly, from moment to moment, we may be able to make better use of our distractions if we frame them as necessary, not disruptive. Office work is plagued by incoming emails, reminders, scheduled meetings, unscheduled meetings, random chitchat, and myriad other annoyances that make concentration more difficult.
For rote tasks, Zabelina’s work on divergent thinking seems to agree with the recommendations: You need quiet. But there’s another theory for jobs that require even a tiny degree of creative thought. Last year, former Campbell’s Soup CEO Douglas Conant wrote in Harvard Business Review that in his 35 years of leadership experience, he’s learned “these thousands of little interruptions aren’t keeping you from the work, they are the work.” Each opportunity is a chance to infuse someone else’s day with meaning, he says. He calls them “touchpoints.”
“If we choose with purpose to see these moments not as distractions from our work, but as the work, then we can begin to lead more meaningfully in each and every moment.”
Zabelina’s research into creative types doesn’t suggest everyone should seek inspiration at Starbucks. In fact, some people genuinely produce their best stuff in noiseless isolation. In most cases, however, the crucial factor is how far along somebody is in the creative process. Idea generation needs spaghetti getting thrown at the wall, just to see what sticks. Execution may need a little more serenity.
Of course, if all you’re looking for is a way to instill some variety in your life, distractions aren’t the curse to productivity we generally see them as. They add a dash of randomness, and they also relieve pain — both of which are good news for the millions of Americans who are overworked and overmedicated. A trip to the water cooler has never been healthier.