Recent studies suggest that not being able to work in noisy environments might mean you’re a creative genius.
The “café-worker”’ – as much a commonality between cafés as coffee itself. You see them each day, and yet you don’t understand how they do it. The tinkle of clashing mugs, the rush of steaming milk, the undulations of conversation – it’s just not a working environment, you say.
But though you might bemoan your inability to get through work in the pleasant confines of your favorite establishment, that very inability may well indicate a creativity in you, perhaps even a creative genius.
Noise, Noise everywhere . . .
You’re not alone in finding ambient noise distracting. Proust, Goethe and Darwin all shared your distaste; each would to great lengths in search of silence. And scientific studies at Northwestern University suggest that this may be more than mere coincidence.
Sensory gating is a process whose function is to regulate the input of sensory information. It determines what we do and don’t ignore in our surroundings. Some people allow more information in than others. Such individuals have “leaky” sensory gating, and it would seem that cafés are simply not for them when it comes to work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we have limited control of our sensory gating (I know it all too well – Brosnan’s Mamma Mia renditions remain with me still).
The scientists at Northwestern have been studying the responses people have to external stimuli, and their findings appear to link creative thinking with sensitivity to noise. The creativity of the participants was measured beforehand by means of a questionnaire on their creative achievements and a test of their divergent thinking (a supposed measure of creativity). Those with leaky sensory filters, unable to block out noise, proved to be the most creative (as measured by the creativity questionnaire) – essentially, creativity correlated with inattention in the face of noise.
So feel free to keep your coffees social. When it comes to distraction, you’re in fine company.
. . . But Still A Chance To Think?
But what if you do like working in cafés? Are you then precluded from being or becoming a creative genius? What if you find the distinctive sounds of your preferred hangout the perfect accompaniment to your daily tasks?
Well, that’s no problem – in this too you’ll find yourself in company to be proud of. Hemingway and Fitzgerald each took particular pleasure in scribbling away to the sounds of a coffee shop, and their creative genius cannot possibly be denied.
Furthermore, the research at Northwestern comes with certain caveats. First, divergent thinking did not correlate with a disposition to be distracted by noise (though doubts have been cast on the relation between divergent thinking and creative excellence). Second, the scientists at Northwestern themselves admit that the study did not determine whether or not weak sensory filtering is a stable trait: it might be that creative thinkers have the ability to alter the strength of sensory gating in accordance with the task at hand.
For now it’s best not to worry about your ability to work in noise (or, indeed, about creative genius). Make an effort to change your habits and you risk making yourself inefficient; before you know it, it’s Friday and you’re searching for lost time. Just find what’s best for you: the comfort of home, the quiet of the library, or even the buzz of your favorite café. Creative genius is to be found in all places.