A new opinion paper published in the September 2015 edition of the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, suggests that the part of the brain associated with self-generated thoughts — the sort involved in both rumination and introspection — tends to be overactive in neurotic people, leading to unhappiness as well as creative problem-solving.
Neuroticism refers to the tendency to experience negative emotions. Those with strong neurotic tendencies may experience primarily one specific negative feeling such as anxiety, anger, or depression, but are likely to experience several of these emotions.
Neurotics are emotionally reactive, and respond emotionally to events that would not affect most people, with reactions that tend to be more intense than normal. They are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening, and minor frustrations as sisyphean toils. Their negative emotional reactions tend to persist for unusually long periods of time, which means they are often in a bad mood. These problems in emotional regulation can diminish a neurotic’s ability to think clearly, make decisions, and cope effectively with stress.
But while these tendencies make them prone to bad moods and anxiety, they can also greatly enhance creativity. And the link between neuroticism and creativity seems to be rooted in overthinking.
“Neuroticism has costs but it also has benefits,” Dr. Adam Perkins, a lecturer in neurobiology of personality at King’s College London and one of the paper’s authors, told The Huffington Post in an email. “Highly neurotic people will suffer a lot of anxiety and depression over their lifespan, but their deep-thinking, brooding tendencies can also give rise to greater creative potential.”
Overthinking is a hallmark of high neuroticism. Thinking “too much” stems from our brain trying to keep us alive just a bit too hard. This hyperactivity to perceived threats lends weight to both anxiety and the capacity to solve problems creatively.
The paper cites the case of Sir Isaac Newton, notoriously neurotic, and suggests that it may have been his tendency to dwell on a problem that led him to his groundbreaking scientific advances, including his formulation of the law of gravity. This makes sense if you look at creativity as the ability to exercise flexibility in generating solutions to various real-world problems.
“If neurotic people tend to think more about problems due to having a lot of threat-related self-generated thoughts — which explains their tendency to feel unhappy — it seems likely they will have a better chance to create solutions to those problems, compared to low scorers on neuroticism who look on the bright side of life all the time,” Perkins said.
What does this look like in the brain? The researchers noticed spontaneous high activity in areas of the brain involved in the conscious perception of threat, the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex.
This suggests that it’s not just overthinking in general that characterizes neuroticism and creativity, but rather a particular type of overthinking — the brain is responding to a perceived threat and going into overthinking mode to solve the problem.
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