Neuroticism may be unsettling for most people, but throughout the history of civilization, we have also come across creative people who have neurotic tendencies. Michelangelo, Issac Newton, Edgar Allan Poe, Sylvia Plath, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Woody Allen — the list is inexhaustible. Now, while a fundamental relationship between neuroticism and creativity has long been mooted by amateur psychologists, a new study by researchers at London’s King College has given scientific weight to the claim.
In a paper published by self-proclaimed neurotic and personality researcher Adam Perkins in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, he argues that neurotic minds tend to channel their creative energies into problem-solving much more than the average person because their perception of a potential threat is exaggerated, and at the same time, wildly confounding. So while most of us might hope to get out a of a sticky situation by practical application of our cognitive resources, a neurotic person may try to do the same by creating an “abstract,” in the process (subconsciously on most occasions) fueling creative processes that might otherwise never have been triggered.
For instance, take the curious but well-known case of Issac Newton, physicist, mathematician, writer, and philosopher, but also a neurotic. Newton grew up in an Orthodox Christian family, and though he later rejected the doctrine of Trinity, he was a devout Christian who always felt guilty for the childhood “sins” he had committed. A brooding and depressive man, Newton tended to overthink the problems in front of him. While most neurotic men in his time would have perhaps sought a philosophical solution to their conundrum, Newton, being of a more scientific disposition, hoped to look for answers in science. His neuroticism always kept him on the edge, and thanks to his anxiety disorders and depressive fits, today we are well-versed with the laws of motion.
This is not an entirely new theory, of course. Researchers as early as in the 1970s recognized a link between neuroticism and creativity. According to Time, psychologist Jeffrey Gray was the first person to have pinpointed the “threat sensitive” tendency of people inflicted with neuroticism. From the various experiments he conducted with his neurotic subjects, Gray inferred that people with neuroticism tended to look for analytical solutions in the face of difficulty.
“Gray’s test showed that high scorers on the neuroticism test tended to avoid ‘dangerous’ jobs, preferring occupations that kept them out of harm’s way—hence the association with more analytical jobs, which require creative problem solving, as opposed to physical ones.”
But the recent study goes one step beyond Gray’s conclusions. For Perkins and his team, Gray’s theory is too simplistic.
Why should having a magnified view of threat make you good at coming up with solutions to difficult problems? It doesn’t add up. On one hand, it’s a clever theory—it shows the difficulty of holding down a dangerous job, for example—but on the other hand, it doesn’t explain why [neurotic people] tend to feel unhappy or why they’re more creative.”
So Perkins started looking for other solutions. Almost fittingly, his “eureka” moment arrived just as he was casually listening to a lecture by his colleague Jonathan Smallwood from the University of York. As Smallwood went about describing the origins of self-generated thought and the science behind daydreaming, Perkins realized there was something way more important his colleague was indirectly referring to.
“He started describing how people whose minds wander are better at things like creativity, delaying gratification and planning. He also talked about the way that daydreamers’ minds wander when they’re feeling kind of blue. And my ears perked up.”
Together, and with a little help from Dean Mobbs of Columbia University, the psychologists ran a series of MRIs on volunteers, who had not been told about the experiment beforehand. Naturally, the volunteers began to daydream. Neuroticism forces people to focus on negative thoughts, in which case the medial prefrontal cortex would show heightened activity.
“It means a neurotic person can experience intense negative emotions even when there is no threat present. This could mean that for specific neural reasons, high scorers on neuroticism have a highly active imagination which acts as a built-in threat generator.”
Thus, people who score high on neuroticism in a personality test are more likely to have negative feelings, but they are also more likely to come up with a solution — a potential upside to neurotic daydreaming.
So the next time someone complains about you brooding or mocks you for your self-indulgent behavior, just remember this: neuroticism is indeed the fuel to creativity.
[Photo by Creative Commons]