When Being Distracted Is a Good Thing

[The following article written by Jan Brogan appeared in the Boston Globe Health and Wellness section on 2/27/2012. By the way, in addition to writing for the Globe, Jan is also an award-winning mystery writer well known for her series of books starring reporter Hallie Ahern. Check out her novel Teaser for a gripping suspense tale!]

When being distracted is a good thing

Boston Articles     February 27, 2012|By Jan Brogan

Why do we get some of our best ideas in the shower?

Harvard University researcher and psychologist Shelley H. Carson, author of “Your Creative Brain,’’ says distraction isn’t always a bad thing.

If you are stuck on a problem, an interruption can force an “incubation period,’’ she says. “In other words, a distraction may provide the break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution.’’

Mark Fenske, coauthor of “The Winner’s Brain’’ and an associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Guelph in Canada, puts it this way: “It’s paradoxical. You need to be able to focus to shut off distractions, but sometimes you can focus too hard. You get stuck on something that is not helpful.’’

He says he has thought a lot about why “I sit in front of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and spend an embarrassing amount of time staring at the screen, then I get my best idea in the shower.’’

When we focus on a problem, we may be biased toward certain brain signals and suppressing things that we see as unrelated, he says. In the shower, “shampooing hair and lathering up doesn’t take a lot of cognitive focus,’’ he says. “Other parts of the brain can start to contribute.’’

We engage in more free association and mind wandering, he says, “And that’s really critical for innovation.’’

Carson’s studies show that not only are creative people more susceptible to “novelty,’’ and thus distraction, but that mind wandering itself is associated with highly creative people. She was one of the lead investigators in a 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology on latent inhibitions, or shutting out distractions. The study, which put two groups of Harvard students through a series of tests, showed that a weaker ability to filter out irrelevant stimuli combined with a high IQ was predictive of creative achievement.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Duncan-Long/783387672 Duncan Long

    Interesting…  Years ago I seem to recall that the sound of running water had a tendency to cause the brain to shift into an Alpha state. I’m not sure if this is correct (or if it applies to showers), but is an interesting adjunct to this notion of distraction and creativity.

  • Hilmar


    I have the following question: Is creativity a learning disability?

    The reason I ask is that when I was in high school I was diagnosed as having “somekind of a learning disability” since despite serious effort, my grades and overall performance in school was mediocre, yet I tested with an IQ of 155 points on the WAIS III (and later 172 points on the RAPM). I was diagnosed with OCD and Tourette’s, though neither of those are specifically thought of as learning disabilities. So eventually it was concluded that I had AHDH, despite the fact that none of the neuropsychological tests supported this. Every other possible cause (processing disorders, depression, etc) was comprehensively ruled out.

    And so it was that I went through both college and two masters degrees, barely hanging in there, getting extended testing time and taking reduced course load each semester. Last year, however, I saw a documentary called Mad but Glad where low latent inhibition was mentioned and that made me reevaluate my situation. I have a very strong urge to create both in writing and music. However, I always felt this was distracting me from getting my life in order so, beginning in early high school, I developed this forceful tendency to stop myself whenever I could feel the “creative seizure” coming on. This resulted in very rigid self control over time which I am now trying to get rid of again, and in the process trying to understand myself better.

    While creativity is something most people think of as a positive trait, to me it’s a double edged sword. It’s a force that peels your eyes open and morphs everything around you into something different, and it won’t let you look away from it. The sensory input arrives like hard hail hitting a glass window and giving into the endless story telling that comes with it is very seductive. But it is also very time consuming and alienates other people. It is hard to remember things as they happened, and it’s impossible  to do boring things. Hence my question.


  • Exasperated with my brain

    Hey! I think this may be true for me as well (except I do not think my IQ scores would be That high!). Did you ever figure this out or get some more helpful information? ¡I get SOOOOO exasperated with myself!!!!!!!!!

  • Hilmar

    Since this was written I’ve gone through a thorough ADHD examination, where I answered a lengthy questionnaire, and had psychologists interview my parents and delve into my childhood history. The outcome was that I did in fact have rather severe ADHD without hyperactivity (I guess that would make it ADD). I am now on medication (Concerta), which seems to help somewhat, although it makes my OCD and anxiety more severe.

    As for whether creativity is itself a learning disability, I suppose there is an implied connection between ADHD and creativity, but I have not found any concrete proof on the correlation between creativity and learning disability yet.

  • Dr. Shelley Carson

    I have worked with many students at Harvard that have been diagnosed with ADHD. Some of them I believe are merely divergent thinkers rather than true ADHD candidates. Divergent thinkers often have a difficult time in school settings and on standardized tests (if you have a copy of my book Your Creative Brain, I tell an interesting story about this on pp. 125-127). The world is set up for convergent rather than divergent thinkers. However, because the business world is finally beginning to recognize the value of creative thinkers, things may be changing! In short, Hilmar and Exaperated, you may think differently than other people…but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Try to figure out how you can use your unusual thinking style to come up with creative ideas and find a real niche for yourself!

  • Dr. Shelley Carson

    Some people with learning disabilities (e.g. dyslexia) are highly creative. Hilmar, please read my comment above (after your last post). I actually posted it in the wrong place!

  • kevin shah

    After being right handed if get use to be ambidextrous is it harmful for me?