Do you watch the Weather Channel biting your nails, worried that some natural disaster might sweep away your home? Do health symptoms send you to the internet in search of reassurance that you aren’t dying? Do you worry that your friends have stopped liking you when their mood goes south?
Join the ranks of the neurotics. Here’s the good news. According to studies, those who worry overmuch tend to be a bit more creative than the rest of us contented slugs. And now, an article just published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science postulates why that might be so.1 Basu, Tanya. “A New Theory of Why Neurotics Are Creative.” Time Magazine. 28 August 2015. www.time.com/4011917/neuroticism-creativity-daydreaming/
The article emphasizes that neurosis is a complex of tendencies particularly marked by anxiety and brooding.2 Perkins, Adams, et al. “Thinking too much. Self-generated thought as the engine of neuroticism.” September 2015. Trends in Cognitive Science. 28 August 2015. http://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613%2815%2900154-0 There are other traits that neurotics may or may not experience–depression, for one, excessive jealousy for another–but it’s the fear and anxiety that are linked most strongly with creativity. Neurotics, according to the article, avoid risks because they fear that “something could go wrong.” You won’t find neurotics volunteering to go on space missions or to invest in risky stocks. Instead, they opt for safe jobs that draw on their talents for analysis, creative thinking, or problem-solving. Given that, you might wonder how so many neurotics end up in the arts–hardly a safe profession, at least financially speaking.
The authors explain, “We [do not] believe high scorers on neuroticism are prone to misery due to imagining completely fanciful threatening events that have no link to external realities (e.g., the invasion of Earth by aliens in flying saucers). Instead, we suggest that the unhappiness of the neurotic mind is mostly due to threats with some grounding in reality, such as past adversity in the workplace or future risk of spousal infidelity. However, our key point is that, at the moment when the neurotic misery is experienced, the threat stimulus is not present and is, instead, imagined. Therefore, it is this capacity for the self-generation of vivid thoughts concerning non-present but non-fanciful threats that we suggest is the hallmark of the highly neurotic individual.”
It’s this same ability to visualize things ending in disaster, whether that’s a real or imaginary possible outcome, that leads to creative visualization, as well. The active imagination can be both a boon and a curse, in other words. It can invent hostile outcomes, and it can invent brilliant new things and solve intractable problems.
One of the study authors, Jonathan Smallwood, ran some preliminary tests where he put a group of subjects through MRI scanners, giving them absolutely no instructions. He found that the more neurotic subjects had lots of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex region of the brain, a region associated with fear-related thoughts. It’s that same brain region that’s associated with imagination. It occurred to Smallwood that those who stayed focused on their fears for a longer period of time, i.e., the neurotics in the group, also would tend to stay focused on creative challenges longer, so they might experience more breakthroughs.
As another one of the researchers, Dr. Adam Perkins said, “High scorers on neuroticism have a highly active imagination, which acts as a built-in threat generator.”3 Van Radowitz, John. “Moody neurotics are more likely to be creative geniuses, study says.” 27 August 2015. The Independent. 29 August 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/moody-neurotics-are-more-likely-to-be-creative-geniuses-study-says-10475455.html
The bottom line, the study authors explain, is that neurotics think all the time, whether they’re spinning out the next calamity or focusing obsessively on solving some problem. It’s that constant mental activity that allows them, perhaps, to piece together things in new ways or to stumble into startling discoveries.4 Healy, Melissa. “Neurotic? Here’s the Silver Lining.” 27 August 2015. The Los Angeles Times. 29 August 2015. http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-neurotic-silver-lining-20150826-story.html
The researchers argue that although we can help neurotics feel better by squashing their symptoms via medication, that same medication might be cutting off their creative flow. Antidepressants, often used to control neuroses, may ultimately “do more harm than good,” they write. Of course, they’re just talking about the negative effects antidepressants might have on creativity, but as we’ve written before, there are plenty of other reasons to avoid the little happy pills–except as the option of last resort.
By the way, the study in no way means that you have to develop neuroses or stay miserable in order to be creative, just as you don’t have to have PTSD to feel compassion for others. Certainly, there are some well-adjusted, upbeat individuals who are creative geniuses. And, there are neurotics who would be much more productive if they weren’t paralyzed by their own worries. All the researchers are saying is that a predilection to neuroses may give you a slight creative edge. In any case, maintaining a creative edge isn’t necessarily worth the misery that neuroticism can bring, and it would be wise to implement the Baseline of Health regimen to help alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety, without worrying about losing a tiny bit of creative spark in the process.
|↑1||Basu, Tanya. “A New Theory of Why Neurotics Are Creative.” Time Magazine. 28 August 2015. www.time.com/4011917/neuroticism-creativity-daydreaming/|
|↑2||Perkins, Adams, et al. “Thinking too much. Self-generated thought as the engine of neuroticism.” September 2015. Trends in Cognitive Science. 28 August 2015. http://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613%2815%2900154-0|
|↑3||Van Radowitz, John. “Moody neurotics are more likely to be creative geniuses, study says.” 27 August 2015. The Independent. 29 August 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/moody-neurotics-are-more-likely-to-be-creative-geniuses-study-says-10475455.html|
|↑4||Healy, Melissa. “Neurotic? Here’s the Silver Lining.” 27 August 2015. The Los Angeles Times. 29 August 2015. http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-neurotic-silver-lining-20150826-story.html|