More On Creativity and Distractibility

Day dreaming

Jonah Lehrer writes for the Wall Street Journal:

A new study led by researchers at the University of Memphis and the University of Michigan extends this theme. The scientists measured the success of 60 undergraduates in various fields, from the visual arts to science. They asked the students if they’d ever won a prize at a juried art show or been honored at a science fair. In every domain, students who had been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder achieved more: Their inability to focus turned out to be a creative advantage. […]

Here’s where the data get interesting: Those undergrads who had a tougher time ignoring unrelated stuff were also seven times more likely to be rated as “eminent creative achievers” based on their previous accomplishments. (The association was particularly strong among distractible students with high IQs.) […]

This doesn’t mean, of course, that attention isn’t an important mental skill, or that attention-deficit disorders aren’t a serious problem. There’s clearly nothing advantageous about struggling in the classroom, or not being able to follow instructions. (It’s also worth pointing out that these studies all involve college students, which doesn’t tell us anything about those kids with ADHD who fail to graduate from high school. Distraction might be a cognitive luxury that not everyone can afford.)

Wall Street Journal: Jonah Lehrer on Distractions, ADHD and Creativity

This is encouraging for people with major distractibility problems, such as myself. However, I’m not going to get too excited. That first study cited had only 60 participants – a tiny sample. Especially when you consider the “decline effect.”

I’ve been meaning to blog about the decline effect, and hopefully will soon. Incidentally, Lehrer wrote a great article about it for the New Yorker recently. Here’s a particularly relevant portion:

Although such reforms would mitigate the dangers of publication bias and selective reporting, they still wouldn’t erase the decline effect. This is largely because scientific research will always be shadowed by a force that can’t be curbed, only contained: sheer randomness. Although little research has been done on the experimental dangers of chance and happenstance, the research that exists isn’t encouraging.

I would consider myself a creative person. Perhaps distractability has helped me be more creative. But creativity is worthless without execution – and that’s why I’ve been trying to train myself to be more focused.

Having difficulty paying attention has negatively impacted my life more times than I can remember. It’s a big problem for me. That said, there’s usually room to use weaknesses as strengths.


Are Distractible People More Creative?

Research Shows That American Creativity is Declining

Teachers hate creativity?


  1. Interesting analysis…

    You say: “But creativity is worthless without execution”

    The part I find success with is twisting and evolving the definition of execution or lack of.

    Example: I get major creative impulses around writing on topics, playing with code, data visualizations, etc. I will “waste” 4-6 hour on a late night on something that ends up incomplete….but if I keep work around…organize….there is chance I will use later. I might be able to use the work, concept, idea or what I learned in the future.

    So I think its our definition of follow through or completion. Often set by someone else…and unfairly applied to our worlds.

    ADHD is an opinion from a certain perspective.

  2. Isn’t Lehrer really talking about mind-wandering, versus distraction? The subtle but important difference is that the former is internally-generated and can be generative (your mind drifts away from the dishes you’re doing and thinks about a problem you’re trying to solve), while distraction is externally-generated and tends not to yield new insights or ideas.

  3. Kin – Perhaps I should elaborate a bit more by way of an example. My ambient album, Return to the Wasteland, was a well over a year in the making. I worked on it off and on, with ideas coming here and there. But the majority of the work was done in a very focused period of about 2 months. During that time I worked on the album every day and it was my main project, outside of my day job at the time. Until I actually finished the recordings, I just had a bunch of ideas and random bits of sound.

    I had to actually buckle-down and finish that work before there was anything of real value. I have lots of other ideas, some that I’ve started and many that I haven’t. In my experience, it takes sustained focus to actually finish something.

    Alex – Good point, though the Harvard study he cites is specifically about distractibility. Lehrer seems to imply that distractibility is a predicts mind-wandering. Both are symptoms of ADHD, but it’s probably reaching to assume that everyone who has trouble ignoring external stimuli have ADHD.

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