May 20, 2008
Easier Distraction Of Older Brains Seen As Advantage

A new neurology book, “Progress in Brain Research”, provides evidence that the greater tendency to distraction in older brains might bring creative benefits (though most creative work is done while young).

“It may be that distractibility is not, in fact, a bad thing,” said Shelley H. Carson, a psychology researcher at Harvard whose work was cited in the book. “It may increase the amount of information available to the conscious mind.”

I think distractibility involves trade-offs. Makes you better at some things such as dealing with a lot of people in a very interweaved way. But a whole lot of work requires single minded concentration to go through all the steps required. A lot of software development work requires ability to go through large stretches of concentration to build up logical models in your mind. Getting distracted sets you back.

For example, in studies where subjects are asked to read passages that are interrupted with unexpected words or phrases, adults 60 and older work much more slowly than college students. Although the students plow through the texts at a consistent speed regardless of what the out-of-place words mean, older people slow down even more when the words are related to the topic at hand. That indicates that they are not just stumbling over the extra information, but are taking it in and processing it.

When both groups were later asked questions for which the out-of-place words might be answers, the older adults responded much better than the students.

Dr. Carson argues her research shows that students who are less able to filter out unwanted sources of stimuli score as more creative. But are they ultimately more productive? In other words, does this enhanced creativity pay off for them? Do they make more scientific discoveries or technological breakthroughs? Do they succeed more often in creating great advertising campaigns?

We can find plenty of examples of people accomplishing great achievements through hyper-focusing their talents on how to solve a single problem while ignoring distractions from their environment. I suspect we have a surplus of distractible people and a shortage of people who can ignore distractions. Maybe we could make better use of distractible people by putting them in workplaces where they'll encounter fewer distractions. Then maybe their creativity and the need to concentrate can find a better synergy.

Distractibility reminds me of Low Latent Inhibition. Possibly there are different kinds of distractibility and some kinds are more productive than others.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 May 20 05:35 PM  Brain Aging

Bob Badour said at May 21, 2008 3:15 PM:

One might make the argument that the really important discoveries have come about because someone was smart enough to get distracted by an important observation.

Here I am thinking about Archimedes running naked through the streets shouting Eureka! because the water level in his tub distracted him from his bath. Or the accident that led to the discovery of penicillin. Or even LSD for that matter. One even has the legend of Newton's apple; although, I am unsure of the truth of that story. Madame Currie's photographic plates were very real though.

dom youngross said at May 24, 2008 8:44 AM:

Of an older brain? More like of a bored brain. Or of an untrained brain. Or maybe like an over-indoctrinated brain that wishfully assumes everything has a high potential for significance, meaning, or substance. Or maybe like a gullible brain. There are many types of brains. Any one will do in a pinch. Except the one labelled Abby Normal. Old people are a trip. Give them one thing to do, and they turn it into two or three. Did the 60-and-older subjects have their reading glasses on when reading the text in question? Maybe the matter at hand is distractibility linked to eyesight. One thing is for certain, frogs with no arms or legs are deaf.

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