The Myth of the Neurotic Creative

Despite popular belief, the two traits aren’t necessarily linked.

Michael Probst / AP

There are a lot of things I want to be true. I wish that binge watching New Girl on Netflix made me lose weight. I wish every time I took a shower, I stepped out with a profound insight about human existence. And perhaps most of all, I wish my sometimes-crippling anxiety had a really big upside.

If I weren’t a psychologist who studies creativity, I’d find much comfort in the following headlines:

Unfortunately, these headlines don’t hold up to the evidence. While neuroticism has been associated with a host of negative outcomes (including imposter syndrome, stress, anxiety, impulsivity, depression, and impaired physical health) and even some positive outcomes (such as threat detection and increased vigilance), creative thinking doesn’t appear to be one of its correlates. There’s so much we still don’t know about the creative mind, but what we do know suggests that being highly neurotic is not the magic sauce of creativity.

But still, belief in this magic sauce persists not only in popular media, but in the research community as well. In a recent issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, a group of psychologists led by Adam Perkins, a lecturer in neurobiology at King’s College London, published a column titled “Thinking Too Much: Self-Generated Thought as the Engine of Neuroticism.” (Although the paper was an opinion piece rather than a new study, the authors did draw on a number of prior studies.) Perkins and his colleagues argued that neurotic people may have a more active “threat generator”—in addition to being afraid of immediate threats in the environment (which was already known to be high in neurotic people), perhaps they’re also constantly being fed concerns about things that only exist in their imagination.

So far, so good. Neurotic people do tend to “self-generate” an awful lot of concerns. Heck, I can relate to this—even when there is no danger in sight, my mind automatically seems to compute all the possible permutations of what could go wrong.

But in a section of the paper titled “Links between neuroticism and creativity,” they speculate that  neurotic minds may be more creative “because they will tend to dwell on problems to a greater degree.” In support of their argument, they quote Isaac Newton: “I keep the subject constantly before me, and wait till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.” They also mention Newton’s many neurotic tendencies: constant brooding over past mistakes, worrying obsessively about his predecessors, his nervous breakdown in the summer and autumn of 1693.

If this were the only argument in support of the thesis, it would be easy to discount. After all, there’s nothing in the single case study of Newton to suggest that his neuroticism was a cause of his contributions to Calculus, mechanics, gravity, and cubic-plane curves. Newton’s quote suggests that he had great powers of concentration and grit (passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals), not that his nervous breakdown was somehow a positive contributor to his groundbreaking work.

But Perkins and colleagues do go on, bringing in past research to support their claim. Among the papers they cite is a study of advertising-industry employees showing that those working in creative roles tend to score significantly higher on neuroticism than employees in “noncreative roles.” They also cite a study showing that people in creative professions have a higher risk of psychiatric illness and suicide.

But here’s the thing: One can be creative in any field. There are a heck of a lot of uncreative artists and a lot of creative accountants (far too many, in fact). And for the most part, the relationships between neuroticism and creativity are pretty weak.

In a reply, a group of psychology researchers published a response to the opinion piece reviewing the existing literature on the link between neuroticism and creativity. Their review found only very weak (and sometimes even negative) correlations between neuroticism and a host of creativity-related variables, including IQ, creative thinking, insightful problem solving, creative achievement, everyday creative behavior, and self-assessed creativity.

Along the same lines, my colleagues and I recently administered a battery of cognitive and personality tests to three demographically diverse samples, totaling 1,035 participants. The average correlation between neuroticism and creative achievement was zero. In fact, we found that the only personality trait that consistently predicted creative achievement across the arts and sciences was openness to experience.

Openness to experience is a dimension of personality that reflects the drive for cognitive exploration. This could mean a thoughtful exploration of your inner world of ideas, or it could mean an exploration of beauty, art, music, culture, and new experiences. This sense of openness has been linked to higher dopamine, which has been referred to as “the neuromodulator of exploration.”

This finding is very consistent with the latest neuroscience of creativity. In their article, Perkins and his colleagues speculate that the brain’s “default mode network” may be the “engine of neuroticism.” Discovered accidentally, the default mode network tends to activate in fMRI studies when people are resting in the scanner without a task to perform. What has became clearer in more recent years, however, is that this brain network is anything but passive.

Neuroscience literature suggests that instead of being the engine of neuroticism, the default mode network is actually the “imagination network,” consisting of multiple interacting components that are all related to imagination in some way. The personal meaning-making component helps us make meaning out of our emotions and experiences, the mental simulation component plays a critical role in imagining (and remembering) scenarios that are not currently present to the senses, and the perspective taking component helps us imagine what other people are thinking.

As Perkins and his colleagues correctly note, some studies have found linkages between the structure and function of the medial prefrontal cortex and neuroticism. But the medial prefrontal cortex is only one part of a larger network. Also, the evidence that is much clearer is that neuroticism is affected by the amygdala and insula, areas of the brain associated with fear, emotional reactivity, and emotional regulation. Instead of saying that the default network is the engine of neuroticism, it seems more likely that the high anxiety and negative affect of neuroticism hijack default-network activity to make our daydreams negatively tinged.

This doesn’t mean that such thoughts are particularly imaginative or creative, however. It’s crucial to distinguish between the neurotic imagination and the creative imagination. Yes, sometimes they overlap. But more often, they do not.

In the 1950s, the Columbia University psychologist Jerome Singer and his colleagues found that people differ widely in the content of their daydreams. They identified three main daydreaming styles: poor attentional control (representing the inability to concentrate on an ongoing stream of thought or task), guilty-dysphoric daydreaming (representing obsessive, anguished fantasies), and positive constructive daydreaming (representing playful, wishful, and constructive imagery).

Singer called this last group the “happy daydreamers,” because they “simply value and enjoy their private experiences, are willing to risk wasting a certain amount of time on them, but also can apparently use them for effective planning and for self-amusement during periods of monotonous task activity or boredom.”

Critically, research has shown that while guilty-dysphoric daydreaming is correlated with neuroticism, positive constructive daydreaming is not. Instead, it’s associated with openness to experience—and therefore, one could argue, with creativity.

I recently co-authored two recent neuroscience studies, led by Roger Beaty at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, that further support this idea. In the first, we used two separate experiments to look at how the efficiency of the default-mode network is related to personality. Two groups of participants (one with 68 people, the other with 86) took personality tests, and then had their brain activity recorded with fMRI scans. Within these samples, we found that the only personality trait consistently associated with efficient information processing in the default-mode network was openness to experience (although there was a trend for an association with introversion). Neuroticism was not associated with the global efficiency of the default mode network.

In the second study, we used an fMRI scanner to look at brain-network interactions in the brains of 28 people during creative thinking. The participants had to complete two tasks: listing alternative uses for a common everyday object like a brick (the creative-thinking task), and listing properties of that object (the control task). Based on their brain activity during these tasks, we found that several core hubs of the default-mode network were associated with creative thinking, but communication with two other brain networks—the executive-attention network and the salience network—also played a role. The executive attention network is critical for keeping thoughts on task, organizing one’s thoughts, and in working memory. The salience network plays a critical role in motivation, helping to focus our limited attentional resources.

Consistent with other research on rappers, jazz improvisers, and poets, we also found that during the beginning of these tasks, people showed reduced communication between their executive attention network and their default-mode network. But as the creative process continued, and it became important to engage in idea evaluation, people increasingly communicated with the executive attention network.

What these findings suggest is that creativity doesn’t just involve imagination. It also involves motivation, organization, and collaboration. The neurotic imagination can really distract from these processes. For instance, emerging research suggests that math anxiety and stereotype threat reduce performance because worrying takes up precious memory resources. For optimal creativity, you want multiple brain networks to be firing on all cylinders, flexibly ready to engage and disengage depending on the stage of the creative process. You don’t want nagging, irrelevant concerns to impede on your creative possibilities.

Of course, there are still so many unanswered questions. After all, many highly smart and imaginative people are also highly neurotic. How does this specific combination of traits impact a person’s interest and ability in particular fields? Another very promising line of research is looking at how different styles of daydreaming relate to different creative processes. Perhaps for some fields, and during certain stages of the creative process, negative rumination can help focus attention and contribute to analytical thinking.

But in totality, the evidence is clear that neurotic people aren’t necessarily creative geniuses. Where there is extraordinary creativity, it’s more likely due to a highly developed ability for sustained concentration and imagination, coupled with a strong motivation for creating something new and a high openness to new experiences.

Trust me, I wish my neuroticism caused creative ideas. But if I’m being totally honest with myself, I am usually at my best when I can shake myself free from those negative ruminations.