Charles Darwin
Darwin struggled to ignore distracting sensory information, possibly aiding his creative genius. creative commons

The creative genius of Marcel Proust, Charles Darwin, Franz Kafka and Anton Chekhov arose from an inability to filter out irrelevant sensory information, a study has suggested.

Researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois have provided physiological evidence to suggest creativity could be associated with a reduced ability to filter out irrelevant distractions like noise.

Proust would wear ear-stoppers because he said he was unable to filter out noise, lining his bedroom with cork to stop irrelevant sounds.

Similarly Kafka once said: "I need solitude for my writing; not 'like a hermit' - that wouldn't be enough - but like a dead man." Johann Goethe, Darwin and Chekhov also all spoke about the distracting nature of noise.

The scientists believe some people are more affected by the daily bombardment of sensory information – that they have 'leakier' sensory filters. People who have this may be better at integrating ideas that are outside their focus of attention, improving creativity, lead author Darya Zabelina said.

To investigate, researchers asked 100 participants to report their achievements in creative domains. They were also tested on their divergent thinking, which looks at creative cognition.

For the latter, participants were asked to provide as many answers as they could on unlikely scenarios in a limited time. The number and novelty of their response provided a divergent thinking score. Scientists then compared the real-world creative achievements with their divergent thinking score.

They also looked at specific neural markers that show an early form of attention – the neurophysiological response that occurs 50 milliseconds after stimulus onset.

Divergent thinking correlated with the ability to filter out sensory information. However, in direct contrast, real-world creative achievement was associated with leaky sensory processing.

Published in the journal Neuropsychologia, findings suggest people with leaky sensory grating have a better ability to deploy attention over a wider focus or larger stimuli range.

However, it did not show whether creative achievers can control their sensory processing depending on tasks, or if it is a stable trait.

"If funnelled in the right direction, these sensitivities can make life more rich and meaningful, giving experiences more subtlety," said Zabelina.