We all know the stereotype: a quiet brooding artist who doesn’t do very well in physical jobs but excels at creative work, often briefly coming out of their shell to deliver a new perspective to a problem which ultimately leads to its solution. It’s seen in just about all forms of storytelling, whether its a character in a book, movie, song, or a description of the writer behind the work itself. But is it just fantasy? Is it a form of escapism for those who may not consider themselves ‘normal’ or who are plagued by constant worry and doubtful thoughts so they can feel like they’re simply a misunderstood genius? Adam Perkins of King’s College London would argue ‘not necessarily’, as there is now supported evidence that while it may be embellished at times, there is a clear and significant relationship between over-thinkers and creativity.
“It occurred to me that if you happen to have a preponderance of negatively hued self-generated thoughts (or SGT), due to high levels of spontaneous activity in the parts of the medial prefrontal cortex that govern conscious perception of threat and you also have a tendency to switch to panic sooner than average people, due to possessing especially high reactivity in the basolateral nuclei of the amygdale, then that means you can experience intense negative emotions even when there’s no threat present.” said Perkins regarding his study. “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.”
In common terms, this means that people who get lost in thought more than normal have the tendency to impulsively generate many worrisome thoughts due to higher activity in the frontal areas of the brain. These neurotic people were also found to activate the areas in their brain relating to panic earlier than others. This is all balanced by the area that processes fear, emotion, and decision-making known as the amygdale. However this ability to mentally create threats that aren’t necessarily there can also be put towards other kinds of ideas, ones that are insightful and helpful towards problem-solving as well as narrative thoughts.
But what exactly does neuroticism entail? Well, its said to be a relatively mild mental illness, somewhat akin to psychosis but without a complete loss of touch with reality. People with neurosis are prone to over-thinking, stress, depression, and anxiety, however this new hypothesis suggests that the same ‘ability’ to generate ones own stress can, under the right circumstances, create problem-solving breakthroughs instead. Neurosis inhabited some of the past and present’s greatest minds, including Isaac Newton, Michelangelo, and Woody Allen.
“Cheerful, happy-go-lucky people by definition do not brood about problems and so must be at a disadvantage when problem-solving compared to a more neurotic person,” says Perkins. “We have a useful sanity check for our theory because it is easy to observe that many geniuses seem to have a brooding, unhappy tendency that hints they are fairly high on the neuroticism spectrum. For example, think of the life stories of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Vincent Van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, etc. Perhaps the link between creativity and neuroticism was summed up most succinctly of all by John Lennon when he said: ‘Genius is pain.’”
On top of support from the common stereotype, the theory was also backed by empirical evidence. High scorers on neuroticism tests were found to be more creative than low scorers. In a 1979 study of conducted in Germany, The Eysenck Personality Questionnaire was taken by 257 painters and sculptors as well as 300 non-artists. The data showed that the artists scored higher on neuroticism and lower on extraversion than the non-artists. Similarly, individuals currently working in creative roles within the advertising industry tend to score significantly higher on neuroticism than the employees in non-creative roles.
Neuroticism is heavily linked with the development of psychiatric illness, and has also been found to affect risk-related behaviour. For example, high scorers on neuroticism take fewer risks when making investments and typically stay away from jobs that entail physical danger. Low scorers on neuroticism have been associated with jobs like bomb-disposal, and those volunteering for military pilot training score significantly lower on neuroticism than the general public. Furthermore those who graduate from training typically score even lower than their already low-scoring peers who end up failing, says the study.
That being said, it doesn’t mean that if you identify with these personality traits than you are doomed to a life of stress and nervous-breakdowns. Neurosis can be tamed, even without sacrificing creativity. Experts say the trick may lie in fostering ones obsessive thinking towards subjects outside of ones self to reduce thoughts that become self-referential and lead to rumination. Meditation has also been known to help, and can also increase creativity in the long run.
Want to measure your personality? Take the test created by Perkins here using the ‘study code’ 92556379.