We knew it.
It seems as if everyone you know does some of their best work while sitting in their local coffee shop, but you don't even bother bringing your laptop when you're killing time at Starbucks. You know that every customer order shouted out or every whirl of the espresso maker will derail you from whatever project you attempt to work on. You've tried to block it all out but have failed every time.
But there's good news if this always happens to you.
A Northwestern University study found that really creative thinkers aren't very good at filtering out pointless sensory information. In other words, those who are creatively gifted are more sensitive to the sounds and sights of daily life than other people, like the barista counting out change or the couple at the table in the corner arguing over money.
In order to understand the nature of the study, you need to know that the purpose of divergent thinking is to generate as many different ideas about a topic in a short period of time. In addition, a divergent thinking test is a timed measure of creative understanding in which participants produce a number of responses within a limited amount of time.
In Northwestern's study, approximately 100 participants answered a creative achievement questionnaire and took a divergent thinking test. The number and the uniqueness of the participant's responses made up the divergent thinking score. As a result, the researchers had two separate ways to calculate creativity: a number of people's real-world creative achievements and a controlled measure of divergent thinking.
In the study, divergent thinking correlated with academic test scores and selective sensory gating (being better at filtering than lower divergent thinkers). Also, real-world creative achievement was associated with leaky sensory processing.
In other words, really creative people aren't very good at blocking out external stimuli.
For decades, divergent thinking was thought to be connected to creative ability. But the study's lead author Darya Zabelina and her colleagues suggest that divergent thinking may be more of a reflection of intelligence than of creativity.
"The two don't process the world in the same way," Zabelina said. "Leaky sensory gating, the propensity to filter out irrelevant sensory information, happens early and involuntarily in brain processing, and may help people integrate ideas that are outside of the focus of attention, leading to creativity in the real world."
So maybe you can't block out the world and write a great American novel while seated in a coffee shop. But you're not alone; neither could Darwin, Chekhov, and Proust. And all of them are known as great thinkers.