Neuroticism may not be so bad after all.
Neurotic people tend to overthink things and dwell on negative thoughts, emotions and experiences. But as much as these tendencies make them prone to bad moods and anxiety, they can also greatly enhance creativity.
Why? The link between neuroticism and creativity seems to be rooted in overthinking.
A new opinion paper 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 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."
In the paper, published in the September 2015 edition of the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Perkins and his colleagues present this new theory explaining the link between neuroticism and creativity.
Overthinking is a hallmark of high neuroticism. Thinking too much can result from a hyperactivity to perceived threats, which can contribute to both anxiety and the capacity to solve problems creatively.
For instance, Sir Isaac Newton was notoriously neurotic, but 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, according to the paper.
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.