I am not always creative. In fact, in recent years I have at times felt that my creative spark was dead for good. Fairly recently, I noticed an interesting correlation: the mindset I need to create is utterly antithetical to the one I need to act sociable and socially acceptable. Acting socially acceptable seems to stifle the thought processes that yield inspiration for me.
Needless to say, I was very intrigued when Scientific American recently published a wonderful article expounding on the link between creativity and the “schizotypal personality.” Schizotypal personality features a lack of interest in social contact, eccentric behaviors, a propensity toward odd beliefs, and a complete disregard for social norms. At its most extreme it is considered a severe personality disorder; it is also ridiculously common among creative geniuses. In fact, recent tests show that creative high-achievers are much more likely than the general population to exhibit schizotypal traits; likewise, schizotypal people show more creativity than the general population.
Read the wonderful Scientific American article “The Unleashed Mind: Why Creative People are Eccentric” here: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-unleashed-mind
The SciAm article mirrored my own recent experiences to a startling extent. In it, scientists describe the statistical link between creativity and virtually all of the behaviors and moods I’d been noticing that I’d suppressing in recent years in order to be sociable. Apparently, the mad genius and the moody artist are not just stereotypes: they are strong and thoroughly documented statistical trends. The link is so strong that even in the business world, eccentricity is becoming accepted. (I’m glad we live in a world where the picture below may someday be considered an example of good office practice.)
Shelley Carson went on to beautifully describe a theory of differences in the brain’s information processing which may allow normally suppressed cognitive processes to come to light. Since they did such a wonderful job of discussing the neurology, I thought I might handle the experiential end of things: I’m neither a genius nor a schizotype, but I have definitely noticed the correlation between creativity and “odd” behavior.
Many people say they get depressed if they spend too much time ago. Well, I do too. I also create best when depressed; that’s when my characters act up the most. I have speculated as to whether that depression itself aids the creative process; there is the old cliche that artists must “suffer for their art.”
Neurologically speaking, it turns out that the right brain, which, lacking a speech center, deals primarily in visuals, sounds, feelings, and other non-verbal means of expression and understanding, also deals predominantly in negative emotions, while the logical-verbal “left” makes you cheerful. Neuropsychologists can actually sometimes predict brain damage this way; patients with a damaged right hemisphere will be inordinately cheerful, while those with a damaged left will be very depressed. So is it possible that depression in individuals could signal right-brain dominance, be it transitory or ingrained in their personality? And could this right-brain dominance allow people to “speak the language” of the nonverbal expressions of music, art, and drama?
Depression, of course, is not the only thing that sets in after a period of isolation. I found the “delusions” part of schizotypy very interesting. Why? Because I have found in my own creative states, and observed in other creative individuals, that believing in the superstitious, supernatural, highly unlikely possibilities all go hand-in-hand with the creative mindset. More than once, I’ve heard from my fellow writers about wonderful conversations they had with, say, a ghost or the moon goddess, during a creative renniassance. In my own life, periods of creative output are often accompanied by periods of spiritual and philosophical exploration. So to hear that the same personality type is associated with asocial tendencies, creativity, and disregard for social norms, and belief in supernatural or paranormal occurrences was intriguing.
I have to ask myself, what’s the relationship here between social contact, creativity, and these other quirks? My own perception has been that I simply can’t let my creative juices flow when I’m around people, because I’m known to do things like staring blankly into space for hours, having animated conversations with myself, and walking around with my characters’ facial expressions and randomly acting out their activities. I’ve seen my storymaking thought processes almost audibly squashed as I put together a presentable composure for the outside world.
I’ve thought of it from the other angle, too; maybe it’s my history of solitude that caused my characters, rather than vice versa. Maybe I had no choice but to be a loner, because I was an only child and my family’s frequent moves left me somewhat of an outsider among children. Maybe my characters are an extension of imaginary friends, ultimately driven by loneliness. Maybe that’s why they disappear when I have contact with real people. But again, I’m inclined to think that neurology makes me a natural introvert; I certainly remember enjoying my “alone time” and the freedom it gave me from very early in my childhood.
On the matter of introversion vs. extroversion, one theory is that the brain strives to maintain an “ideal level” of emotional and sensory stimulation. Introverts’ brains, the theory goes, have higher innate activity in some regions, giving them a high level of internal stimulation. Extroverts have lower internal stimulation, and so seek out stimulation from other people. The theory speculates that this is why some people feel most “relaxed” in the presence of others, while others feel most relaxed alone.
I have found that the characters I rely upon for inspiration almost entirely disappear after sustained socializing; whereas after a few days of solitude, they’re almost hallucinatory in their vividness. Could this be a manifestation of my brain’s attempt to maintain the “ideal level” of stimulation? Could this be why many of the artists I know seek solitude, quiet, and darkness after a long day of social interaction? Do other forms of inspiration, like those of engineers, also shrink from social interaction to the point of disappearing?
Of course, not all creative types are fiction writers. They don’t all deal in characters, or even in art. But, Scientific American suggests, the same kind of neural/cognitive processes may underly both artistic and scientific inspirations. John Nash and Nikola Tesla described their inventions and insights as coming to them in much the same way artists describe theirs; they did literally ‘come to them,’ as though from an outside source, rather than being methodically or consciously developed.
The SciAm scientists propose that the characteristics of the schizoptypal personality may be symptoms of a brain that handles information flow in an unusual way. Instead of focusing on what’s most relevant for survival or daily living, the schizotypic brain appears to regularly allow “low priority” ideas to come to the forefront of consciousness. These usually-subconscious thought processes may include artistic musings and abstract theories, and all may come at the expense of attention to social norms.
SciAm’s scientists, and many other figures, have also speculated that the seemingly inhuman insights of visionaries like Nash and Tesla may have been directly related to their delusional or superstitious beliefs. When asked why he was so sure aliens were watching him, John Nash said something to the effect of “because the kinds of thoughts that tell me this are the same as the thoughts that give me my mathematical revelations, so I trust them.” Likewise, Tesla stated that many of his technical insights came to him in “visions”; and so did his “conversations” with the pigeon who he viewed almost as a supernatural messenger.
Most writers I’ve known have attested to something similar; characters have lives of their own. They do not work at the author’s dictates, but rather the writing reveals things to the authors as it progresses. Many have theorized that creative inspirations, including the actions of characters and sudden insights into scientific subject matter, may be the result of long-running but previously hidden mental processes coming to the fore. Some have gone so far as to say this may apply to mysticism and religion in general.
I’m curious to hear you readers thoughts on this matter. Have your creative experiences been similar, or do they contradict these stereotypes? And if these correlations are true, how do you think we should handle them in our personal lives and as a society?