I’ve always been proud of my ability to focus. In many situations, I can quickly distinguish between what’s relevant and what’s not. I can then block out irrelevant information and focus, for long periods of time, on what’s important. It’s a handy skill for a manager.
Like most skills, however, it comes at a price. First, it makes me a bit of an absent-minded professor. I may lose track of “irrelevant” details like anniversaries and birthdays. However, the more costly price may be a loss of creativity.
When I focus intently on something, I’m doing what a neuroscientist would call “cognitive inhibition.” In simple terms, I’m blocking out. I’m inhibiting information from entering my consciousness. I block out a lot of irrelevant stuff but I may also block out information that could lead to a creative solution.
We often think of creative people as being uninhibited. We use the term to describe their behavior rather than their thinking processes. They may dress unfashionably, behave eccentrically, write strident manifestos, and generally seem at odds with the mainstream culture. This is not a new phenomenon; Plato commented about the odd behavior of poets and playwrights.
We use the term uninhibited to describe behavior, but we should also apply it to thinking processes. In fact, a neuroscientist would call it “cognitive disinhibition”. Essentially, it means that we loosen the filters and allow a variety of thoughts to float to the surface. Fewer thoughts are inhibited or blocked out. Some people seem naturally to have fewer filters.
According to Shelley Carson in her article “The Unleashed Mind”, cognitive disinhibition is the basis of both eccentric behavior and of creativity. Carson defines cognitive disinhibiton as “…the failure to ignore information that is irrelevant to current goals or to survival.” Sometimes, this simply leads to bizarre thoughts and psychosis. For people with high IQs and large working memories, on the other hand, it can lead to creative eccentricity. Carson proposes a “shared vulnerability model” that underlies creativity, eccentricity, and high functioning “normal” performance.
The way we talk about creativity gives a clue to Carson’s model. When we have an “aha” moment, we often describe it as a “breakthrough”. We have literally broken through something – in this case, our cognitive inhibition. If we can lower the resistance to a breakthrough – by reducing our inhibitions – we can become more creative … and, perhaps, more eccentric.
Some moths ago, I wrote a brief article about sleep and creativity. We’re more creative when we’re sleepy. Carson’s model explains why: when we’re sleepy our cognitive inhibitions are lower. I’ve also written about caffeine and creativity. Caffeine keeps us focused. By doing so, it also reduces our creativity.
As it happens, I’m a huge consumer of caffeine. Perhaps that’s why I can focus intently on relevant information. Maybe it’s time to take a caffeine break to see if I can be more creative … and maybe a bit more eccentric.