The Benefits Of Not Focusing
“We live in an age that worships attention,” says my friend (and Radiolab colleague) Jonah Lehrer. “When we need to work, we force ourselves to concentrate. This approach can also inhibit the imagination. Sometimes, it helps to consider irrelevant information, to eavesdrop on all the stray associations unfolding in the far reaches of the brain.”
That ability to let go, float free, does seem like an essential part of a creative mind, not just in giant ones. Those of us who make our livings closer to the ground, have to do it too. In his forthcoming book, (coming to bookstores this Spring) Jonah mentions a study by Dr. Holly White, then at the University of Memphis, and her colleague Priti Shah, of the University of Michigan.
They recruited 60 undergrads, half of whom were diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). So these kids had real difficulty focusing and sticking to any one activity. All the students were then given a variety of creativity tests (including the Creative Achievement Questionnaire, originally developed by Shelley Carson at Harvard) and, surprisingly, the ADHD students generally got higher scores. When White asked, “Who among you has won a big part in a play, an art prize, a science prize?” — who has been recognized for his or her achievements out there in the real world — again it was the ADHD students who had done better.
Minds that break free, that are compelled to wander, can sometimes achieve more than those of us who are more inhibited, more orderly, the study suggests. Or, as Jonah chose to put it, there are “unexpected benefits of not being able to focus.”