Neurotic behavior is something we’ve all had to deal with at one point or another. Whether it’s our own behavior, a family member, or a friend, we know neurotics as worriers — dwelling on problems and having frequent negative thoughts.

Many creative geniuses, however, struggled with neuroticism. A new opinion paper published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences presents a new hypothesis for why creativity and neurotic unhappiness often go hand-in-hand. The psychologists suggest that the same area of the brain responsible for self-generated thought is also highly active in neuroticism.

The most well-known explanation for why people are neurotic came from the British psychologist Jeffery Gray, who suggested that neurotic individuals have a heightened sense of threat. He proposed this after observing how antianxiety drugs reduced the sensitivity of rodents to punishment cues and how they helped psychiatric patients relax.

"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," said paper lead author Adam Perkins, a personality researcher at King's College London, in a press release. "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 was spurred to action after attending a lecture by co-author and University of York psychologist Jonathan Smallwood, who is a leading expert on the neuroscience behind dreams. Smallwood described his research at the lecture, which included a study showing that individuals at rest who spontaneously experience negative thoughts (a key marker of neuroticism) displayed greater activity in brain regions that are associated with conscious perception of threat. Perkins then thought that certain differences in the activity of these brain circuits that govern self-governed thought could be a casual explanation for neuroticism.

Perkins recognized that those who had a multitude of negative self-generated thoughts because of high levels of spontaneous activity in the medial prefrontal cortex also have a tendency to switch to panic sooner than the average person. This is due to especially high processing in the basolateral nuclei of the amygdala, according to Perkins, which means that one could experience intense negative emotions even when there is no real threat present.

"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,” Perkins said.

This novel cognitive model could help explain the thinking patterns seen in depression, said study co-author Danilo Arnone. It is, in his opinion, complementary to the already defined role of the subgenual prefrontal cortex observed in the aetiology of mood regulation. This new hypothesis also explains the positives of being neurotic — the creativity may result simply from a neurotic person’s tendency to dwell on problems for far longer than other people.

Perkins said that while they’re still a while off from fully explaining neuroticism, he hopes the new theory will help people make sense of their own experiences and understand that neuroticism has some creative benefits.

"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,” he said.

Source: Perkins A, Arnone D, Smallwood J, Mobbs D. Thinking Too Much: Self-Generated Thought As The Engine Of Neuroticism. Trends In Cognitive Sciences. 2015.