For years, scientists have been searching for the source of creativity, having discarded outmoded myths and memes such as the bolt of lighting.
In January, scientists at Northwestern University announced they'd found the first physiological evidence of a connection between creative thinking and sensory distractions, or what they call "leaky attention." Sound tests given to 97 subjects showed that the poorer a person's sensory gating - that is, the ability to filter unnecessary stimuli from the brain - the higher his or her creativity score.
"Reduced sensory gating may indicate that a leaky sensory filter is a general neural-processing characteristic related to real-world creative achievement," the authors wrote in Neuropsychologia, adding that leaky attention "may help people integrate ideas that are outside the focus of attention into their current information processing, leading to creative thinking." Noise, in other words, aids inspiration.
To test this noise factor, the researchers examined a specific neural marker of sensory gating called the "P50 event-related potential," a neurophysiological response that occurs just 50 milliseconds after a stimulus. In the Northwestern test, two auditory clicks were presented to the subjects, and their ability or inability to inhibit their response to the second click was viewed as a marker for sensory gating.
"Thus, the more creative achievements people reported, the leakier was their sensory gating," the report concluded.
One likely "leaky" genius from the past was the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Dogs barking in the street, the building of a bowling alley, even the movement of a weaver's loom - all drove Goethe to distraction, and to complain to authorities. (One of his less famous lines from Faust: "Be still, thou poodle; make not such racket and riot!")