Noise may be an untapped source of creativity, a new study from Northwestern University found.

The study is actually the first to provide physiological evidence that creativity may be associated with a “reduced ability to filter ‘irrelevant’ sensory information.”  This essentially refers to the fact some individuals struggle to filter out the noise and distraction they’re constantly bombarded with. And it goes against the existing idea some creative thinkers need peace and quiet in order to produce great work (or that creative genius exists at all).

According to a study press release, researchers focused on specific neural markers of a very early form of attention, such as sensory gating, and how they relate to two measures of creative thinking: divergent thinking and real-world creative achievement. Ninety-seven participants were scored on divergent thinking after completing timed laboratory tests designed to measure creative cognition. They then took The Creative Achievement Questionnaire to self-report their creative achievements, in which their achievements were recognized across 10 domains, including visual arts, creative writing, scientific discovery, and culinary arts.

Afterward, participants entered a sound-proof chamber wearing an electroencephalography (EEG) cap. Researchers measured their physiological response following the onset of consecutive auditory clicks. Darya Zabelina, lead author of the study and doctoral candidate at Northwestern, told Psychology Today “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 presented so closely together.”

Zabelina and her team found when they considered sensory gating with real-world creative achievement, participants with high creative achievements didn’t inhibit or gate as much of the sounds in comparison to participants with fewer achievements; they had “leaky” sensory gating. Put it another way: the more creative achievements a participant had, the less they were able to filter distraction.

On the other hand, researchers found participants with higher scores on divergent thinking tests had an increased ability to filter distraction. While divergent thinking “does contribute to creativity, it appears to be separate from the process of creative thinking that is associated with the leaky sensory filter,” Zabelina said.

This, she added, may be why creative thinkers have an increased ability to make connections between distantly related concepts or ideas.

That said, separate research suggests leaky sensory gating may be a risk factor for attention disorders and psychopathology, specifically schizophrenia. Zabelina and her team need to do more research before they can determine sensory gating is a stable trait — or if creative achievers can modulate their sensory processing depending on task demands.

Source: Zabelina, D. L. et al. Creativity and sensory gating indexed by the P50: Selective versus leaky sensory gating in divergent thinkers and creative achievers. Neuropsychologia. 2015.