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This episode is brought to you by the Music for Scientists album! Stream the album on major music services here: Check out the “For Your Love" music video here:

Some people are capable of concentrating in a storm of noise and motion, and some get distracted by the slightest squeak of a classmate’s chair. This has to do with our brain’s ability to filter, and not only are both entirely natural, each can boost our creativity.

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This episode is brought to you by the Music for Scientists album.

Click the link in the description to learn more. [♪ INTRO]. Some people can work in a coffee shop with music playing and dozens of people bustling about and all sorts of smells wafting through the air, and be totally productive.

And some people get completely derailed when they’re trying to work and their neighbor plays their music above a whisper, or starts fidgeting. Why?  Mainly, the difference has to do with sensory gating, which is your brain’s ability to filter out unnecessary sensory inputs competing for your attention.  If your brain lets in and processes a lot of unwanted sensations, you probably have what neuroscientists call leaky, or impaired sensory gating.  And if it doesn’t, you probably have selective sensory gating. But the good news is, no matter which type you have, both can actually boost your creativity, just in different ways.

Sensory gating can involve various senses, from sight to smell to hearing.  And overall, it’s kind of like a bouncer outside a nightclub. Some bouncers have a strict door policy: “you’d better change your shoes, mister.” And some let in, yeah, basically anyone: “come on in. Looking good.” Overall, scientists are still trying to figure out exactly which parts of the brain control this.

But they do have some leads. Like, when it comes to filtering sounds, a 2019 study found that it starts at the ventral cochlear nucleus, or vCN. That's where the auditory nerve fibers that encode information about sound connect to the brain stem.

This suggests  that auditory sensory gating begins almost as soon as someone hears something. So, ultimately, whether someone can filter out noise while they work might just boil down to how their brain is wired.  When it comes to other senses, though... the jury is still out about mechanisms. Still, one thing we do know is that sensory gating isn’t just about filtering out stimuli.

It can also influence your ability to come up with innovative and original ideas. One study that looked into this was published in 2015. It measured 97 test subjects’ auditory sensory gating ability, and looked at how that correlated with their creativity.  First, the participants took a test that measured creative thinking.

It asked them to finish incomplete figures to make pictures, and also to imagine what might happen in improbable scenarios, like, if they could fly. Then, subjects were asked to give a number ranking to their achievement and recognition levels in various creative fields, including music, dance, scientific discovery, and visual arts.  Finally, the participants sat in a sound-proof booth while wearing headphones, and researchers played two, one millisecond-long clicks 500 milliseconds apart.  And while participants listened, their brain activity was measured using an electroencephalogram, or EEG.  In the end, people with leaky sensory gating had the same level of neurological response to both clicks.  Meanwhile, people with selective gating registered the first click, but paid much less attention to the second. Essentially, their brains filtered it out.  But here’s the really fascinating thing:.

The study also found that people with leaky sensory gating had more actual, real-world creative achievements. As in, their creative work was more likely to be widely distributed or recognized.  The authors suggest that might be because leaky sensory gaters focus on more stimuli than other people, so they’re able to make more creative connections between seemingly-unrelated things. For instance, a writer with leaky gating might be inspired by a random conversation they overheard in a restaurant.

Or a dancer might be inspired by, say, the movement of rain on a window. That said, if you don’t have leaky sensory gating, that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative!  The same study found that people with selective gating were more likely to exhibit divergent thinking, which is another form of creativity.  Divergent thinkers are able to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions.   And the reasoning is, if you can shut out distractions and really focus on the task in front of you, you can likely come up with these innovative solutions more easily. So there are definitely benefits and trade-offs to both types.

If you really want to switch camps, though… well, that’s easier said than done. Evidence shows that you can go from selective to leaky sensory gating in some situations, but it isn’t really a skill you can practice. Like, a 2019 study found that military service members exposed to high-intensity blasts developed leaky sensory gating as a result of damage to their auditory processing system.  Another study published in 2016 found that muscle fatigue could also make your sensory gating leakier… at least temporarily.  Meanwhile, on the flip side, scientists are less sure about whether you can tighten up your sensory gating.

Still, just because you might not be able to change your gating doesn’t mean you can’t optimize how you use it.  For instance, if you think you have leaky sensory gating, maybe it’s worth adding those noise-cancelling headphones to your wishlist, or making sure your workspace is free of distractions. And if you have selective gating, you could set aside time to focus on the world around you if you need inspiration. But in either case, you can still explore and unlock your creative genius.  Speaking of creativity, this episode was brought to you by a remarkable new album called Music for Scientists — which a prominent physicist at CalTech calls “a soundtrack to accompany discovery”.

It was written and recorded by Patrick Olson, and was inspired by the space between human creativity and what Richard Feynman calls “the inconceivable nature of nature.” It’s all about expanding the ways we understand the world and ourselves. If this sounds like something you’d enjoy listening to, you can stream Music for Scientists on all major services, or click the link below to catch the music video “For Your Love”. [♪ OUTRO].