The brain built to generate a stream of brooding misery even on the sunniest day may also be a brain primed for genius.
An opinion piece published Thursday discusses why a neurotic person is more likely than a sunny opposite to be creative. Writing in the scientific journal Trends in Cognitive Science, a team of neuroscientists proposes that neuroticism — a lifelong inclination toward negative psychological states — may have a silver lining.
The neurotic, writes a team led by King’s College London psychologist Adam Perkins, thinks too much. Even in circumstances blissfully free of strife, his or her brain works overtime manufacturing threats, insults and dangers. Where they exist, it embellishes, embroiders and explains them.
Some would call it rumination. But the brain built to generate a stream of brooding misery even on the sunniest day may also be a brain primed to see things in ways that don’t conform to everyday realities, write Perkins and his colleagues. A font of creativity, it conjures up threats that don’t exist and imagines circumstances that might explain the vague sense of fear and unhappiness a neurotic feels.
Those fixed and predictable quirks of the neurotic brain, Perkins and his colleagues suggest, may lay the foundation for creative genius. While yet to be shown directly in the lab, they suggest the neural link between neurosis and creativity is strongly suggested by existing research.
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Neurosis — one of the “big five” personality traits that characterize individuals’ thought patterns and behavior — is real. (The remaining traits are agreeableness, openness, extroversion and conscientiousness).
By a variety of measures, people who score highly for neurotic personality traits are more moody, anxious and irritable than are low scorers. They tend to stay that way throughout life, irrespective of changing circumstances.
Studies have shown that neurotics are highly represented in creative occupations but are more likely to avoid or wash out of professions that require intense, sustained attention, such as military aviation. They also are more likely to experience depression and other mental illness.
Brain scans show the regions and networks that process and regulate emotions function differently in people in the grips of negative feeling than in those who feel fine. Those functional differences are particularly evident when scientists look at activity in a network of brain regions collectively known as the default-mode network.
Active when a person daydreams, ponders social relationships or considers the past, a properly functioning default-mode network appears to forge a sense of self and helps people create social templates to interact with others efficiently. But in depression, its activity can become intrusive and hard to turn off.
Existing research has shown that creative people and highly neurotic people show similar patterns of activity in the default-mode network when faced with a specific cognitive task. Both groups find it hard to shut down the daydreaming so that more purposeful mental activity can proceed.
In the creative and the neurotic alike, that persistent spontaneous thought generator might be re-imagining available information in some new form, or casting an imagined threat in a new role. People who have nightmares, who tend to rank high in neuroses, may see that process invade their sleep, the authors wrote.
“I keep the subject constantly before me, and wait ’til the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light,” father of calculus, discoverer of the universal laws of motion and a world-class neurotic Isaac Newton wrote to explain his process of intellectual discovery.
In 1687, Newton wrote his opus “Principia Mathematica,” in which he postulated the three universal laws of motion and laid the foundation for classical mechanics. He gained international recognition for his work, which remains a cornerstone of modern science.
But he brooded over past mistakes and worried obsessively about whether he, rather than Gottfried Leibniz, would get credit for having developed calculus. In 1693, he had a nervous breakdown.
The relentless rise of the happiness movement has given a bad rap to neurotics in recent years. While neurosis is, by definition, a fixed and stable personality trait, many have recommended such measures as mindfulness meditation to nudge neurotics toward more positive thinking. Antidepressants, a 2009 study found, might do the same.
Efforts to nudge neurotics down the scale might help them feel better and protect them from depression, Perkins and his colleagues wrote. But they might also “do more harm than good,” they cautioned, draining from some natural curmudgeons the creativity that may predispose them to genius.