A long-standing and common perception associates creativity with neurotic behavior (and other forms of maladapted or depressive personalities.) We’ve all heard the stories of some of the greatest artists and minds – and their neurotic, addictive and unstable behaviors.  From writer and poet Edgar Allen Poe’s drinking, erratic behavior, and suspected mental illness, to scientist Isaac Newton’s broody and worrying habits – there are many examples throughout history from the arts and sciences of the most genius and creative minds tendency toward neurotic traits.

As we understand it, neuroticism is a long-term and chronically negative emotional state. People with neuroticism tend to have more depressed moods, and suffer from the negative feelings of guilt, envy, anger and anxiety more frequently and more severely than other non-neurotic people. Psychologists have found that those who score highly on neuroticism tend to be highly sensitive to environmental stress and respond poorly to it. They are also prone to Cognitive biases and may perceive every day situations negatively, and these trivial frustrations may lead them to despair.  But while neurotic individuals tend to be self-conscious and shy, they are not considered to be outside socially accepted norms and are still in touch with reality.

Now, researchers may have a new theory why this neurotic behavior and negative emotions are often seen together.  In a paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, psychologists from King’s College London reported that the part of the brain responsible for self-generated thought is highly active in neuroticism, which yields both of the trait’s positives (e.g., creativity) and negatives (e.g., misery).

Researchers went on to explain that people who score high on neuroticism in personality tests tend to have negative thoughts and feelings and are more likely to experience a psychiatric disorder within their lifetime. A popular explanation for why comes from British psychologist Jeffrey Gray, who in the 70s related anxiety to a heightened sensitivity to threat.  But the paper’s lead author and personality researcher Adam Perkin felt that explanation is incomplete, because “…neurotic high scorers often feel unhappy in situations where there is no threat at all,” and this doesn’t explain the increase in creativity and original thought.

Perkin’s discovery came from a lecture by coauthor and University of York psychologist Jonathan Smallwood who described a key study which showed that “individuals at rest in an MRI scanner who spontaneously have particularly negative thoughts (a marker of neuroticism) displayed greater activity in the regions of the medial prefrontal cortex that are associated with conscious perception of threat.” Perkins then realized that individual differences in the activity of the brain circuits that control self-generated thought could be another explanation for neuroticism.

Further collaboration from Dean Mobbs of the Columbia University Fear, Anxiety, and Biosocial Lab, led the team to the theory that because of the relay activity in the parts of the brain responsible for anxiety and panic, that neurotic individuals also switch from anxiety to panic sooner than average people.  As Perkins explains, “This could mean that for specific neural reasons, high scorers on neuroticism have a highly active imagination, which acts as a built-in threat generator.”

What’s been called the “overthinking hypothesis” can also explain the positive side of neuroticism:  creativity.  The creative thought of Poe or Newton could be the result of a tendency to dwell, or ruminate, on issues or problems longer than average, non-neurotic people.

The authors hope that their theory will stimulate new research, and help further explore the creative benefit of what is often considered an unpleasant behavior.