Is neuroticism fueled by overthinking?

August 27, 2015, Cell Press
Newton

Isaac Newton was a classic neurotic. He was a brooder and a worrier, prone to dwelling on the scientific problems before him as well as his childhood sins. But Newton also had creative breakthroughs—thoughts on physics so profound that they are still part of a standard science education.

In a Trends in Cognitive Sciences Opinion paper published August 27, psychologists present a new theory for why neurotic unhappiness and creativity go hand-in-hand. The authors argue that the part of the brain responsible for self-generated thought is highly active in , which yields both of the trait's positives (e.g., creativity) and negatives (e.g., misery).

People who score high on neuroticism in personality tests tend to have negative thoughts and feelings of all types, struggle to cope with dangerous jobs, and are more likely to experience psychiatric disorders within their lifetime. The most popular explanation for why people are neurotic comes from British psychologist Jeffrey Gray, who proposed in the 1970s that such individuals have a heightened sensitivity to threat. He reached this conclusion after observing how antianxiety drugs reduced the sensitivity of rodents to cues of punishment and also helped to relax and liven up psychiatric patients.

"Gray had a useful and logical theory, but the problem is that it doesn't account for the full spectrum of neuroticism—it's pretty difficult to explain neuroticism in terms of magnified threat perception because high scorers often feel unhappy in situations where there is no threat at all," says paper lead author Adam Perkins, a personality researcher at King's College London. "The second problem is, there's literature showing neuroticism scores are positively correlated with creativity; and so why should having a magnified view of threat objects make you good at coming up with new ideas?"

Perkins' eureka moment came after attending a lecture by coauthor and University of York psychologist Jonathan Smallwood, a leading expert on the neural basis of daydreaming. Smallwood described his research during the lecture, including a key study which showed that individuals at rest in an MRI scanner who spontaneously have particularly (a key marker of neuroticism) displayed greater activity in the regions of the that are associated with of threat. Perkins realized that individual differences in the activity of these brain circuits that govern self-generated thought could be a causal explanation for neuroticism.

They collaborated with Dean Mobbs of the Columbia University Fear, Anxiety, and Biosocial Lab, who is an expert on the neural basis of defense in humans. Mobbs had previously shown that there is a switch from anxiety-related forebrain activity to panic-related midbrain activity as a threat stimulus moves closer. Mobbs had also showed that this switch from anxiety to panic is controlled by circuits in the basolateral nuclei of the amygdala—the brain's emotional center.

"It occurred to me that if you happen to have a preponderance of negatively hued self-generated thoughts due to high levels of spontaneous activity in the parts of the medial prefrontal cortex that govern conscious perception of threat and you also have a tendency to switch to panic sooner than average people, due to possessing especially high reactivity in the basolateral nuclei of the amygdale, then that means you can experience intense negative emotions even when there's no threat present," Perkins says. "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."

The psychiatric relevance of this theory was highlighted by psychiatrist and coauthor Danilo Arnone, who argued that this novel cognitive model might help to explain the ruminative thinking pattern seen in depression and is complementary to the already defined role of the subgenual prefrontal cortex in the aetiology of mood dysregulation.

The overthinking hypothesis also explains the positives of neuroticism. The creativity of Isaac Newton and other neurotics may simply be the result of their tendency to dwell on problems far longer than average people. "I keep the subject constantly before me, and wait till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light," Newton once said of his problem-solving method.

"We're still a long way off from fully explaining neuroticism, and we're not offering all of the answers, but 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 says. "Hopefully our theory will also stimulate new research as it provides us with a straightforward unifying framework to tie together the creative aspects of neuroticism with its emotional aspects."

Explore further: More can mean less when it comes to being happier -- especially if you are neurotic

More information: Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Perkins et al.: "Thinking too much: self-generated thought as the engine of neuroticism" dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2015.07.003

Related Stories

More can mean less when it comes to being happier -- especially if you are neurotic

June 9, 2012
New research from the University of Warwick suggests getting more money may not make you happier, especially if you are neurotic.

Neurotics don't just avoid action: They dislike it

April 22, 2014
That person we all seem to know who we say is neurotic and unable to take action? Turns out he or she isn't unable to act but simply doesn't want to.

Negative emotions influence brain activity during anticipation and experience of pain

September 19, 2011
Neuroticism — the tendency to experience negative emotions — significantly affects brain processing during pain, as well as during the anticipation of pain, according to a new study in Gastroenterology, the official ...

Do your neuroses make you more prone to 'contagious' itching?

November 13, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—Have you ever experienced the feelings of itchiness while watching someone else scratch? Scientists University of Sussex and the University of Hull have found the part of the brain responsible for 'contagious' ...

Recommended for you

First impressions count, new speech research confirms

October 22, 2018
Human beings make similar judgements of the trustworthiness and dominance of an unfamiliar speaker after hearing just a single word, new research shows, suggesting the old saying that 'first impressions count' might well ...

Suicide risk in abused teen girls linked to mother-daughter conflict

October 18, 2018
Teenage girls who were maltreated as children are more likely to entertain suicidal thoughts if the relationship with their mother is poor and the degree of conflict between the two of them high.

Study shows how bias can influence people estimating the ages of other people

October 17, 2018
A trio of researchers from the University of New South Wales and Western Sydney University has discovered some of the factors involved when people make errors in estimating the ages of other people. In their paper published ...

Infants are more likely to learn when with a peer

October 16, 2018
Infants are more likely to learn from on-screen instruction when paired with another infant as opposed to viewing the lesson alone, according to a new study.

Researchers use brain cells in a dish to study genetic origins of schizophrenia

October 16, 2018
A study in Biological Psychiatry has established a new analytical method for investigating the complex genetic origins of mental illnesses using brain cells that are grown in a dish from human embryonic stem cells. Researchers ...

Income and wealth affect the mental health of Australians, study shows

October 16, 2018
Australians who have higher incomes and greater wealth are more likely to experience better mental health throughout their lives, new research led by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre has found.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.