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Therapy for Creatives, Part 6: Positive Distraction

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

In physics, there is an unusual principle called 'dither.' In World War II, mechanical flight computers worked better on a moving plane than on the ground. Studies revealed the aircraft's random vibrations in flight allowed the gears to turn more freely, resulting in greater accuracy than static tests on the ground. The word dither was coined from the English term for trembling, ‘didderen.'

The word 'distraction' has a negative connotation, but there are times when distraction--or dither of sensory input--can positively affect mental health and creative flow. ADHD medication and caffeine are both known for a paradoxical effect, stimulants that increase some people's ability to become calm and focus their thoughts. Researchers have proven that playing video games can decrease pain perception and reduce cravings for fatty foods. If you've ever listened to a playlist or podcast while working out or doing a repetitive task, you are using distraction to your advantage.

When my daughter was in middle school, she would study with headphones on or the TV blaring. All of my suggestions that it might go faster if she was less distracted were met with eye-rolls and defensive whining. Similarly, her mom is most creative with horror movies moaning and screaming in the background while she concentrates. Working better with distraction is more than a mother and daughter thing. It’s a human universal human thing! (For me, silence or listening to ambient electrical soundscapes by Brian Eno helps me focus and find my flow.)

There are cultural differences in what is a good distraction. Many of the Indian Ragas (classical music forms) are relaxing and comforting to those who grew up listening to them. But to the western ear, they can cause intense anxiety. So, the need for dither can be inherited or learned. This leads us to an interesting phenomenon in modern entertainment media.

Recently, Netflix has begun producing ‘ambient television,' which provides a tv watching experience that does not require constant attention. The viewer can watch at a reduced level of consciousness and simply enjoy a show without worrying about missing a plot point. Television you don’t have to watch to enjoy? Music that is created to fade into the background? It may seem counterintuitive, but it can be productive.

Working with creatives in therapy, I identify my client's need for distraction. Eliminating, increasing, or changing the type of distraction can vastly improve one's flow. Creative people often have a wide range of environmental conditions conducive to their work and their lives. Fine-tuning creative dither can positively impact thought, mood, emotion.


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