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.