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When being distracted is a good thing

By Jan Brogan
Globe Correspondent / February 27, 2012
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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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