Highly creative people often seem weirder than the rest of us. Now researchers know why
People who score high for creative achievement in the arts are more likely to believe in telepathic communication, dreams that foretell the future, and past lives.Image: GETTY IMAGES
- People who are highly creative often have odd thoughts and behaviors—and vice versa.
- Both creativity and eccentricity may be the result of genetic variations that increase cognitive disinhibition—the brain’s failure to filter out extraneous information.
- When unfiltered information reaches conscious awareness in the brains of people who are highly intelligent and can process this information without being overwhelmed, it may lead to exceptional insights and sensations.
He is one of the world’s best known and most successful entrepreneurs, with hundreds of patents to his name—including the Segway scooter. But you will never see Dean Kamen in a suit and tie: the eccentric inventor dresses almost exclusively in denim. He spent five years in college before dropping out, does not take vacations and has never married. Kamen presides (along with his Ministers of Ice Cream, Brunch and Nepotism) over the Connecticut island kingdom of North Dumpling, which has “seceded” from the U.S. and dispenses its own currency in units of pi. Visitors are issued a visa form that includes spaces on which to note identifying marks on both their face and buttocks.
Kamen, who works tirelessly at inspiring kids to pursue careers in science and engineering, is one of many highly creative people whose personal behavior sometimes strikes others as odd. Albert Einstein picked up cigarette butts off the street to get tobacco for his pipe; Howard Hughes spent entire days on a chair in the middle of the supposedly germ-free zone of his Beverly Hills Hotel suite; the composer Robert Schumann believed that his musical compositions were dictated to him by Beethoven and other deceased luminaries from their tombs; and Charles Dickens is said to have fended off imaginary urchins with his umbrella as he walked the streets of London. More recently, we have seen Michael Jackson’s preoccupation with rhinoplasty, Salvador Dalí’s affection for dangerous pets and the Icelandic singer Björk dressed for the Oscars as a swan.
It isn’t just average Joes who perceive highly creative individuals as eccentric. These individuals often see themselves as different and unable to fit in. The latest findings in brain imaging, creativity research andmolecular biology suggest that these perceptions are not just based on a few anecdotal accounts of “weird” scientists and artists. In fact, creativity and eccentricity often go hand in hand, and researchers now believe that both traits may be a result of how the brain filters incoming information. Even in the business world, there is a growing appreciation of the link between creative thinking and unconventional behavior, with increased acceptance of the latter.
Making the Connection
The incidence of strange behavior by highly creative individuals seems too extensive to be the result of mere coincidence. As far back as ancient Greece, both Plato and Aristotle made comments about the peculiar behavior of poets and playwrights. (Aristotle was also the first to note the relation between creativity and depression, an association that has been substantiated by modern research.) More than a century ago Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso catalogued the bizarre behavior of creative luminaries in his book The Man of Genius and attributed this behavior to the same hereditary “degeneration” that marked violent criminals.
In the past few decades psychologists and other scientists have explored the connection using empirically validated measures of both creativity and eccentricity. To measure creativity, researchers may look at an individual’s record of creative achievements, his or her involvement in creative activities or ability to think creatively (for example, to come up with new uses for ordinary household items). To measure eccentricity, researchers often use scales that assess schizotypal personality.
Schizotypal personality can appear in a variety of forms, including magical thinking (fanciful ideas or paranormal beliefs, such as Schumann’s belief that Beethoven channeled music to him from the grave), unusual perceptual experiences (distortions in perception, such as Dickens’s belief that he was being followed by characters from his novels), social anhedonia (a preference for solitary activities—Emily Dickinson, Nikola Tesla and Isaac Newton, for example, favored work over socializing), and mild paranoia (unfounded feelings that people or objects in the environment may pose a threat, such as Hughes’s legendary distrust of others).