Research suggests that neuroticism could lead to greater creativity

While scoring high on the neuroticism spectrum – with its characteristic looping thought patterns that can see anxieties obsessively and repeatedly picked over – is generally seen as a negative, new research has found that it could be a positive in driving creativity.

A paper published recently in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences suggests that neurotic thought patterns and day dreaming are similar – both can be categorised under the umbrella of self-generated thought, or cognition that represents information without an obvious link to the current environment. But neurotic thinking is negatively hued. "It’s daydreaming about your problems, which isn’t a pleasant thing," Adam Perkins, a lecturer in the neurobiology at King’s College London, told "But it may provide some advantages."

Perkins’ opinion paper spelt out his theory that neurotic unhappiness can create a fertile breeding ground for creative breakthroughs.

His hypothesis is two-pronged. Firstly, he believes neurotics to have a much more active imagination than the general population – mainly due to how often they engage in this self-generated thought. Additionally, those who score highly on the neurotic spectrum tend to continue to dwell on the same problem long after most people have moved on.

While this might be an unpleasant experience, Perkins sees it as one primed to generate creative solutions. Neurotics tend to utilise their active imaginations to come up with a range of unconventional answers.

Perkins uses Isaac Newton as an example, regarding him as the quintessential neurotic creative genius. As Newton himself said: "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."

Perkins says: "He would brood about his childhood sins, brood about scientific precedent and ruthlessly try and destroy the careers of people who challenged him."

Perkins admits that not all neurotic thought is conducive to creative breakthroughs. "Neuroticism doesn’t operate in isolation – there is an interaction with IQ,” he says. In one study, he found that while neurotic traits were positively correlated with workplace performance when financial managers’ intelligence was high, as it declined the relationship faded. “Being clever doesn’t protect you from feeling anxious, but you are perhaps more able to focus your anxiety on solving tractable problems."

While there’s still a lot more work to be done in this area and Perkins admits that it "is a tough deal," he says: "On the other side of the coin, it may give you certain advantages in making sense of the world."

Thumbnail from gettyimages.


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