Creativity Linked With Deficit in Mental Flexibility

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Creative types are often seen as rather flaky — their minds leaping wildly from one bizarre idea to another, ever seeking inspiration. But a new study suggests that people who actually achieve creative success have minds that stubbornly cling to ideas, even to the point where it impairs their ability to shift focus.

In one experiment, researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois selected 34 students out of more than 300 who completed a questionnaire on creative achievement, ultimately including 19 who had outstanding achievements in music, art, science, writing or other areas and 15 of those whose scores ranked them as being among the least creative.

“We preselected people with very high and very low creative achievement,” says lead author Darya Zabelina, a graduate student at Northwestern. The research was published in Frontiers in Psychology.

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During the study, participants had to shift their attention from a global level of processing to a local one, by focusing on different aspects of patterns. In some cases, they were asked to identify a large letter made up of smaller ones (for example, an S pattern made up of smaller e’s). In other instances, the correct answer was the opposite one — identifying the smaller letter.

“It’s a little counterintuitive,” says Zabelina, “but people with high creativity actually perform badly on this test.” In fact, they made more than twice as many errors as the less creative group — and even after controlling for overall intelligence, the creative people still did less well.

A second experiment involved the same task, performed by another 39 high, moderate or low scorers in creative achievements. Again, the more creative people scored lower. And in both experiments, there was no difference in performance whether people had to shift from the “forest” focus of the larger letters to the “tree level” of the smaller ones or whether the shift was in the opposite direction. That suggests that the lower scores were not related to creative people being more focused specifically on either detail or on general patterns.

The research may help explain why autistic people, who tend to focus obsessively, can often be highly creative. Paradoxically, it may also help explain the link between attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and creative success.

“The general idea is that [people with ADHD] are not able to focus on anything,” says Zabelin. “But really there are two different parts of the disorder, and one is that if they really get interested in something, they become almost like autistic people: really focused, so much so that they are not able to practice anything else.” Indeed, between 30% and 50% of autistic people also have ADHD.

The combination of an ability to range widely from one thought to another and to focus when a good idea occurs may be the sweet spot for creative success. The trick is in the timing: to have the mind wander enough when seeking ideas to hit on the best ones and then zoom in and persist once the right solution has been found.

But the study makes clear that creative achievement may come with some trade-offs in mental flexibility, when the time comes to actually shift focus. Persistence certainly matters in creative achievement — but some creative folks may not know when to stop.

MORE: What Genius and Autism Have in Common