Eccentricity and the Creative Mind: An Insider’s View

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?

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5 Responses to Eccentricity and the Creative Mind: An Insider’s View

  1. Page 28 says:

    There clearly seems to me there exists an unconscious mind that exists with the same prowess in reasoning as does our conscious one, and I’ve always found that interesting in terms of creativity. Especially that in telling jokes. Witty statements and the like have always amazed me because we never “think” them out. Some “sub process” somehow manages to link together various strands from associative memory and then rationally deduce the outcomes (laughter) from an individual. And it happens instantaneously, as if it’s given to “you.” Boggles my mind, and so I find your post interesting.

    But I can say nothing about it, hah. I have no idea how this is possible. If one were to believe it religion, or quantum superpositions, or well whatever, I couldn’t say much.

    I just think it’s all about balance though. For instance, I can’t seem to be creative unless I’m alone. I can also find myself excessively creative during great feelings of sorrow. For me, it’s not depression, but more an understanding of the sad state that our world can exist in. Some serious empathy and connection to my “reader” comes out of that. But that’s not socially advantageous all the time, so I just recognize it, and take advantage of it.

    • kagmi says:

      I have wondered about the “intelligent unconscious” myself. Its existence has become very clear to me in my own personal experience.

      I am very intrigued by the left brain-right brain connection to this issue. As you may have heard, our two brain hemispheres are very similar–one might say nearly identical–and each contain the tools to do almost all the necessary functions of thinking and perceiving. But there are differences. The characteristics of neurons in each hemisphere are slightly different, in ways that are thought to make the right brain better at forming connections between individual concepts without necessarily imposing outside logic, while the left brain is thought to be better at making “long-range” overarching connections and storytelling. The biggest difference, though, is that the right brain has little or no speech capability–the left brain is uniquely wired for speech and the sort of communication that comes with it.

      Some scientists have gone so far as to say that we do almost all of our direct communicating with the left hemisphere. After all, most of our conscious thoughts consist of words, or are at least structured around them. Even in split-brain patients where there’s no internal connection between the two brain hemispheres, the left brain tries to communicate for both sides–it makes up stories about why the body parts controlled by the right brain are doing what they’re doing, even if those stories are blatantly false.

      Point being, I do wonder if some of our “subconscious” insights come from the right brain. It could be doing its own processing over there that we may have a difficult time articulating in conscious thought until they either come to our attention through sensory impressions instead of words (scenes and emotions, maybe), or form a conclusion concrete enough to be understood and translated by the left brain. I sort of favor this right-brain centric hypothesis because my story inspirations do tend to come to me when I have all the other hallmarks of right brain dominance–the depressive feelings, the polymodal spiritual convictions, the focus on sensory experience over words, etc.. So I do wonder if the inspirations are coming directly out of the right hemisphere.

      It’s also possible that neural networks distributed on both sides of the brain could function below the level of conscious perception. We know that sensory perception can work that way–your body can respond to seeing something even if you have no conscious idea of what you’re looking at, for example. The response levels simply appear to be too low to reach our conscious awareness. If sensory neurons can do this, it’s entirely plausible that other types of neurons involved in intelligent thought could do the same thing–have something going on unnoticed by our conscious mind until it reached a certain critical point.

  2. Page 28 says:

    I would challenge the right-brain focused thought on this by asserting that the “unconscious intelligence” isn’t necessarily indicative of either side. For instance, while crafting a joke might seem a very “right-brained” thing, I think that’s only part of the picture. Another example however, by my opinion, would be catching something thrown at you without knowing it was coming. When an object is speeding at you very very fast, we don’t take the time to logic “If this hits, it will hurt. Therefor I should move my arm at this degree and speed and clench my fist with timing.” A (thankfully) very good calculating logic processes all of that for us. I would argue it has to be a sense of “intelligence” as it deciphers some rather complex sensory input. Sure someone might say that is instinct, but I would then ask them to define instinct and differentiate it from other reactions we have. But perhaps a better example could be given.

    • kagmi says:

      Good point, good point! It’s also entirely possible that the networks operating below the level of consciousness are distributed on either hemisphere.

      Direct sensory information is definitely processed in this way, like the visual information example you describe. One of the weirder phenomenons in neuroscience is “blindsight.” Have you heard of it? It’s when someone has no conscious perception of sight, they think they’re completely blind but can still avoid obstacles and “guess” where objects are in their visual field with a high degree of accuracy.

      We now know how and why that happens (turns out there’s an ancient brain structure that gets information from our eyes and can inform our motor decisions but has nothing to do with our visual cortex), but it just goes to show how neural networks can operate “in the dark” below the level of perception.

      No reason to think other types of thinking can’t happen in the same way!

  3. Olivia says:

    That’s why I just hate having to write out my mathematical reasoning. It just kills all the enthusiasm. The answers just arrive in my head suddenly. Same with poetry. I just write. I don’t have the slightest idea what I’m writing when I do it. When I read it afterwards I realize it’s quite deep. And has cool number patterns too I totally didn’t think of (like 6 sixes, 7 sevens, 1, 3, 5, etc.) Same with just about any idea I have.
    I agree the thoughts that give me these ideas coexist with what people would call delusional stuff.
    I call it inspiration.
    May the obligatory school system die. Analyzing your writing and explaining why you wrote something or another is a MAJOR PITA and OVERALL CRAPPY.

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