Everyone knows someone who is a worrier. You, yourself, may be a worrier. Perhaps you have a high degree of neuroticism.

[Neuroticism here means having “ a tendency toward anxiety, depression, self-doubt, self-doubt, and other negative feelings.” — Psychology Today.]

Or you may be like me, someone who begins to worry when the stories in my head become intense or overwhelming. I spend a lot of time challenging my stories and have made friends with the worrier voice in my mind.

But if you haven’t made friends with your worrier voice, it doesn’t matter, we ALL know what it feels like to worry – and this worrying, our anxiety of the future, our self-doubt and imposter syndrome and even (in my case) depression may be a benefit. It may foster creativity and problem-solving!

In a newly published paper, the authors help explain why worriers worry when there is no threat present but instead perceive a threat in their mind which in turn may lead to better creativity and problem-solving.

New Science Research

Adam Perkins is a Lecturer in the Neurobiology of Personality in the Department of Psychological Medicine at my alma mater, King’s College London, is the lead author of a paper proposing a new theory that neuroticism (and worrying) stems from brain circuits “that govern the nature of self-generated thought”.

Even though this paper has yet to be empirically tested (and that’s important to note — that it’s just proposing a theory) what the authors do state are links that bring their theory to life.

Self Generated Thoughts & Neuroticism

The paper goes through the authors logic and outlines supportive circumstantial evidence giving rise to their theory. They start by looking at how we use “self-generated thought”.

Self Generated Thought (SGT) is when we think about other information without linking it to present information. For example, the thoughts we have during mind wandering or daydreaming. It’s those thoughts that allow us to “time travel” and think about future possibilities. We all have it and we all use it productively to plan, set goals, and drive hope and motivation.

From there, they outline how previous neuroimaging research, provides evidence that Self Generated Thought(s) (SGTs) are produced in the default mode network (DMN) area of the brain. This is also where episodic memory and semantic processing occur during spontaneous thought — linking self generated thoughts with spontaneous thoughts. So spontaneous thoughts can be self generated.

The authors also outline how Self Generated Thoughts are linked to “a [more] patient, long-term style of decision-making” in which a person utilises them to create a mix of costs and benefits for creative outcomes. This is also evidence in neurotic individuals. It’s here they make the argument that natural worriers may also have highly active imaginations and be more creative problem-solvers.

Finally, the authors explain that activity of both Neuroticism expression and Self Generated Thoughts have been linked to changes in the medial prefrontal cortex. This is an interesting link because the medial prefrontal cortex is a hotly contested region of the brain. In this paper from 2013, the study explains that the medial prefrontal cortex, “stores schema which maps context and events onto appropriate actions (Alexander and Brown, 2011Miller and Cohen, 2001).” If self generated thoughts are linked to the same area of the brain that stores schema, context and events — we can see how this new theory can make sense.

Altogether, the authors hypothesised that because our self generated thoughts allow us to “imagine realities different to the way they are right now” that this ability underpins creativity and problem solving which is a common tendency for those with neurotic personalities.

It’s the “individual differences in proneness to particular elements of [self generated thoughts] that are the root cause (the ‘engine’) of neuroticism.”

Nick Haslam, Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne, said the researchers had made “a novel and quite an original claim that neuroticism is not primarily due to being sensitive to threat in the here and now, but is more due to tendency to engage in ‘self generated thinking’ that is not directly related to what is immediately present to us”.

The Other Side of the Fence

As I mentioned, this paper hasn’t been empirically tested. Two psychologists gave their opinions on some limitations the theory may come up against in an article published in Neuroscience News.

“The self generated thinking of highly neurotic people is usually repetitive, rigid and unproductive. This is in contrast to the kind of free-flowing and flexible thinking that produces creative ideas… there is little evidence that neuroticism is associated with creativity at all.” — Nick Haslam, Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne

In recent studies of personality and creativity, “consistent associations are found with one major personality dimension (openness to experience), but no associations emerge for neuroticism.” — Luke Smillie, a Senior Lecturer in Personality Psychology at the University of Melbourne

“There is very little evidence that the structure and functional differences of the brains of anxious people cause the proneness to mind wandering or the difficulty that anxious people have in reducing anxious thoughts,” said Ian H Robertson, a Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin.

Even though there’s still lots of work to be done establishing an evidence-based link between worrying and creativity, it is a new approach and for me, it’s this positive approach to help see the benefit of a negative state of mind.

“We hope that our new theory will help people make sense of their own experiences, and show that although being highly neurotic is by definition unpleasant, it also has creative benefits,” Perkins said.

Take-Aways

What I found so interesting about this proposed new theory, is how the researchers are looking for ways to find the positive of negative experiences and the links that may connect them.

As someone who battled post-natal depression, I know what those negative thoughts can do — and now that I’m out of the depression cycle — I can see how my Self Generated Thoughts brought me further down.

  • A question I asked myself throughout reading and analysing this paper is… are those Self Generated Thoughts described here different from our Inner Voice? And if so or if not, what is our Inner Voice’s role in creativity?

Another interesting takeaway from the paper was that it mentioned ways to deliberately manage our Self Generated Thoughts.

  • Again as I read through the paper, I thought about therapeutic techniques such as mindfulness, CBT and ACT.

The authors explained that meditation-based therapies, are “likely to be psychologically protective but, if improperly trained, can do more harm than good.”

  • Interesting that they make this connection but not a connection with Inner Voice. I believe that’s because the concept of our inner voice sits with those who study language and not creativity or thoughts. (One for me to study perhaps!)

Although this paper is a proposed theory, it brings forward interesting concepts, questions, and insights for further research. For us, non-academic researchers, I take this as a positive step towards understanding how we could possibly harness our creativity especially when we’re worrying or in a negative frame of mind.

I’d love to hear if you have any experience with negative thoughts and creativity. Have you found yourself more creative when you’re worrying? Or how about when you’re being creative, how do you talk to yourself? I would love to hear your stories…

Go Get ‘Em!

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