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Why silence may be key to creativity


The influence of noise on our creativity levels has been a popular topic of discussion for sometime now, especially as the majority of workplaces have adopted open plan offices as the norm.

There has been much to suggest that the frequent stream of disruption inherent in such an environment is crippling our productivity, but a study published last year found that silence is equally harmful to our creativity.

Indeed, it found that the ideal level of noise was akin to the standard hubub we find in a cafe.

Alas, a recent study suggests that some of the most creative thinkers of all time would beg to differ.

The study focuses on our ability (or lack of) to block out the huge amount of competing sensory information we encounter each day to enable us to focus on the task of hand.

The study suggests that some of the finest creative minds, from Darwin to Kafka, were actually really bad at this, and therefore required total silence when working.

The paper makes the suggestion that there may be a physiological link between this inability to filter ‘noise’ and our creative abilities.

Sensory gating

Our ability to filter out sensory information that is largely irrelevant is something that we usually develop very early on in development as human beings.

The suggestion is that this ability helps people to integrate ideas that are outside of the core challenge area, thus resulting in a heightened level of creativity.

The neurology of attention

The research team explored the neural markers that allow us to filter sensory information and command attention.  They used an index of P50 ERP, which is the neurophysiological response that tends to occur roughly 50 milliseconds after we receive a stimulus.

They wanted to test how this relates to both divergent thinking and creative output in real world settings.

Participants were asked to report their various creative achievements as well as undertaking a simple test to measure their divergent thinking ability.

The test presented people with a series of unlikely scenarios that participants were asked to respond to in a given timescale.  The variety and novelty of the responses helped to provide a score for their divergent thinking abilities, thus providing the researchers with both real world data (of their achievements) plus a lab based metric.

Interestingly, strong performance on the lab test correlated strongly with high levels of sensory gating (ie they could filter useless information very well).

In contrast however, those who had produced creative real world results were found to have a much lower ability to filter out irrelevant information, suggesting that different creativity measures require different levels of filtering ability.

In other words, creative people who have poor filtering mechanisms may apply their attention over a much broader focus than those with strong filters.

“If funneled in the right direction, these sensitivities can make life more rich and meaningful, giving experiences more subtlety,” the researchers say.

It’s a theory that has been born out by some of the most creative thinkers throughout history.  The author Franz Kafka for instance famously opined for extreme solitude when crafting his novels, whilst the likes of Darwin and Chekhov have also famously desired quiet environments to work in.

What is less clear is whether our sensory filtering abilities are fixed or whether it’s something altogether more flexible, but it certainly appears as though the coffee shop hubub might not be ideal for everyone.

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