Anyone with even a touch of neuroticism will recognize its characteristic looping thought patterns, in which anxieties are obsessively and repeatedly picked over. The proclivity to detect and dwell on stressors and threats – a tendency that unites neurotics – explains why the personality trait is not just associated with experiences of fear, moodiness, worry and frustration but also a higher-than-average risk factor for common mental disorders.
Scoring high on the neuroticism spectrum, in other words, is no cakewalk.
But there may be an upside.
Research suggests that neurotic thought patterns and day-dreaming are similar; both can be categorized under the umbrella of self-generated thought, or cognition that represents information without an obvious link to the current environment. But while day-dreaming is often positive or neutral, neurotic thinking is always negatively hued. "It’s daydreaming about your problems, which isn't a pleasant thing," says Adam Perkins, a lecturer in the neurobiology of personality at King's College London. "But it may provide some advantages."
His theory, published today as an opinion paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, is that neurotic unhappiness can create a fertile breeding ground for creative breakthroughs.
Perkin's hypothesis is two-pronged. Firstly, he believes neurotics have a more active imagination than the general population, due in large part to the frequency in which they engage in self-generated thought or more specifically, the conscious perception of threat, even when the environment is neutral. In addition, high scorers on neuroticism continue to dwell on the same problem long after the average person has moved on.
This is an emotionally unpleasant combination, but in Perkins' view it's one primed to generate creative solutions. Not only do high scorers obsess over the same problem for extended periods of time, but their active imaginations allow them to generate a range of unconventional answers.
Take Isaac Newton. Perkins regards the physicist and mathematician as the quintessential neurotic creative genius. "'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,'" he recites, quoting Newton on his problem-solving method.
Newton was responsible for some of the largest breakthroughs in the scientific revolution, and yet on a personal level, the man could be a neurotic mess. "He would brood about his childhood sins, brood about scientific precedent and ruthlessly try and destroy the careers of people who challenged him," says Perkins. Newton suffered a complete nervous breakdown in 1693, at the height of his career, and was subsequently given a prestigious, if undemanding, position as Warden and Master of the Royal Mint.
Newton's neurotic tendencies failed to dissipate, however. He simply found a new problem to obsess over: Britain's rampant currency problem. At the time, thieves were shaving off trace amounts of the gold and silver from coins, and melting them down to sell. Newton introduced what would become a mandatory solution: milled edges, which prevented people from clipping coins without rendering them invaluable.
It was this combination of constant, obsessive worry, coupled with an overactive imagination that caused Newton's breakdown, but also to his pervasive, all-encompassing creative genius, says Perkins.
At this stage, the connection between neuroticism and creativity is hypothetical. While previous research has shown that artists and creatives in advertising agencies score significantly higher on neuroticism than the general public, more research is needed to make the connection explicit.
Perkins also stipulates 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 away. "Being clever doesn’t protect you from feeling anxious, but you are perhaps more able to focus your anxiety on solving tractable problems."
He hopes his paper will prompt further research on the connection between neuroticism and creativity. Having a neurotic personality "is a tough deal," he says. "But on the other side of the coin, it may give you certain advantages in making sense of the world."