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Neuroticism and Creativity: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

A new theory links both to a specific type of brain activity.
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Woody Allen. (Photo: Lucky Team Studio/Shutterstock)

Woody Allen. (Photo: Lucky Team Studio/Shutterstock)

Neuroticism and creativity have long been linked in the popular imagination, with Woody Allen serving as the poster child for their convergence.

But while support for this connection has emerged in research studies, as well as stories of emotionally troubled geniuses like Isaac Newton and Tchaikovsky, it has never been clear why the two proclivities should go hand in hand. Neuroticism is usually thought of as arising from extreme sensitivity to threat—not a quality that would seem to invite creative exploration.

In an opinion paper published today in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, four psychologists led by Adam Perkins of King's College London propose a new explanation. They argue that neuroticism and creativity are both marked by unusually high levels of "self-generated thought."

It's possible that neurotic tendencies are the price creative people pay for their extraordinary inventiveness.

Granted, when one is in the grip of neurosis, these spontaneous ideas tend to be negative in nature. But Perkins and his colleagues argue that the part of the brain highly activated when you're spinning dark scenarios is likely also responsible for generating other types of creative thoughts.

Think of it this way: Reacting to an ambiguous remark from your boss by coming up with crazy, unrealistic scenarios in which you are likely to get fired is, in a very real sense, creative.

Perkins said in a press release that neurotic people "can experience intense negative emotions even when there's no threat present (at this specific moment). This could mean that, for specific neural reasons, higher scorers on neuroticism have a highly active imagination, which acts as a built-in threat generator."

Needless to say, a "threat generator" is not something most people would choose to own. But the imagination required to run this anxiety-producing feature can also be harnessed in positive ways.

"Because self-generated thought allows us to imagine realities different to the way they are right now," the researchers write, "we argue that it underpins our capacity to solve problems in creative and original ways." This, they add, explains why creativity is a "particularly common gift among high scorers on neuroticism."

The researchers concede that, since their theory is new, it has "yet to be validated experimentally." But they point to "supportive circumstantial evidence," in the form of brain-imaging studies that are consistent with their hypothesis.

"We're still a long way off from fully explaining neuroticism, and we're not offering all of the answers," Perkins says, "but we hope that our new theory will help people make sense of their own experiences, and show that although being neurotic is, by definition, unpleasant, it also has creative benefits."

On that last point, he and his colleagues conclude with a warning: "Deliberately managing self-generated thought so that it acquires a positive slant is likely to be psychologically protective," they note. But such therapy could also "do more harm than good" if it simultaneously dampens one's creativity.

It's possible that neurotic tendencies are the price creative people pay for their extraordinary inventiveness. The good news: If you can find a more positive outlet for that imagination, you just might come up with something remarkable.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.