Are you a neurotic over-thinker? Scientists say you can be a genius

Posted on August 29, 2015 by

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Terry R. Nixon (The Market Business) Aug 28, 2015 — Consider, if you will, your favorite neurotic. You may need to look no further than across your breakfast table, or conjure a picture of the nation’s neurotic laureate — Woody Allen. Or perhaps you’d reach back in history, say, to Isaac Newton — father of calculus, discoverer of the universal laws of motion, and a world-class neurotic. Throughout his long life, Newton was angry, secretive, thin-skinned, guilt-ridden and prone to fits of melancholy.

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An Opinion piece published Thursday invites you to consider why your favorite neurotic is more likely than his or her 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 psychologist Adam M. 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. It is a wellspring of self-generated thought — ponderings wrought, seemingly, of whole cloth.

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 posit, 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.

Neurosis — one of the “big five” personality traits that reliably characterize individuals’ thought patterns and behavior — is very real (the remaining traits are agreeableness, openness, extraversion 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.