The tendency to overthink and worry may not be a good thing but such neurotic behavior marked by contemplating too much on things that other people consider mundane and dwelling on problems is actually a sign of being creative.
Neuroticism and having a creative mind have long been associated. Some of the great thinkers and geniuses in history including Michelangelo, Isaac Newton and Woody Allen are known to be neurotic.
Individuals who score high on neuroticism tests were also likely to have negative feelings and thoughts; are threat sensitive; avoiding or having difficulty coping with dangerous jobs; and tend to suffer from psychiatric disorders.
Now, a paper published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences on Aug. 27, offers a new hypothesis as to why neurotic unhappiness and creativity go together.
The researchers claimed that the part of the brain that controls self-generated thought is highly active in neuroticism, which results in the trait being characterized by both creativity and misery.
Jonathan Smallwood, who specializes on the neuroscience behind dreams, conducted a study that showed people at rest who spontaneously experience negative thoughts have greater activity in regions of the brain linked with conscious perception of threat.
Adam Perkins, from King's College London, who co-authored the new study with Smallwood, thought that some of the differences on the activity of brain circuits governing thought could explain neuroticism.
He recognized that individuals who have plenty of negative self-generated thoughts to due high levels of spontaneous activity in the brain's medial prefrontal cortex were more likely to panic sooner than the average person.
He said that this could be attributed to high processing in the amygdala's basolateral nuclei, which means that neurotic people could experience intense negative emotions regardless of the absence of a real threat.
"We argue our theory explains not only the association of neuroticism with threat sensitivity but also the prominence within the neurotic mind of representations of information that are unrelated to the way the world is right now, such as creativity and nonsituational 'angst'," the researchers wrote.
The researchers acknowledged that their study does not offer all of the answers that could fully explain neuroticism but they hope that the new theory they presented could show that while being highly neurotic could be unpleasant by definition, it also offers creative benefits.
"For specific neural reasons, high scorers on neuroticism have a highly active imagination, which acts as a built-in threat generator," Perkins said. "Hopefully our theory will also stimulate new research as it provides us with a straightforward unifying framework to tie together the creative aspects of neuroticism with its emotional aspects."
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