“Worry is the mother of invention.” Likely many of us have seen that twist on an old aphorism. I am not sure who first coined it, though I have seen it attributed to Dr Adam Perkins.
Dr Perkins is a neurobiologist and primary investigator at King’s College London on research into why some of us are more prone to anxiety than others, with the aim of explaining the causes of anxiety and to inform its treatment. The title of his co-authored paper is ‘Thinking too much: self-generated thought as an engine of neuroticism’. Well that certainly struck a chord! I have blogged before (here) of the vexation caused by not being able to switch off the negative ‘voices; in the mind, the so-called ‘inner critic’.
One of the main conclusions of the Perkins study appears to be that whilst such ‘self-generated thought’ (i.e. thoughts unrelated to the here and now), such as worrying, can create unhappiness (no surprise), it also facilitates creativity. Of this link, Dr Perkins notes that “…high scorers on neuroticism have a highly active imagination, which acts as a built-in threat generator.” Therefore, worrying leads to better problem-solving (which makes sense) and hence the quote about invention…
A different study has linked a tendency to worry with higher intelligence. Alexander Penney and colleagues at McEwan University studied 100 students to conclude that those who “reported a general habit of worrying more… also tended to score higher on the test of verbal intelligence.”
Hmn. Of course, as a lifelong ‘worry wort’, I want to believe all these conclusions. Given all the hours, the sheer energy, spent entertaining anxiety, I’d like to think these have not been emptied into a black hole of wasted time but rather been cognitively processed into creative, proactive solution and considered thinking.
But does worrying make one more creative, or is it simply a way to channel energy by doing something other than worrying? In other words, using ‘nervous energy’?
Psychotherapist Diana Pitaru has written that: “Anxiety is a common emotion experienced by creative people…” although “…how and when people experience anxiety differs widely.” Pitaru notes creativity as a flip-side of anxiety, that we have a choice of whether to become paralysed with angst and play it safe, or use the ‘possibility’ of anxiety to embrace the unknown – hence bringing forward our creativity.
As an aside, I guess this might explain writer’s block in some people, that such a creative slow-down or halt may be brought on by anxiety – of a piece of work or an idea not being good enough perhaps, of failing.
Certainly, writing is sometimes used in therapy, pushing back anxiety and stress, and simply learning more about one’s thought processes, by writing those thoughts down. But that can lead to something creative, something imaginative, that exposes one’s vulnerabilities. Something that connects with other people. Because most of us worry, don’t we? Have fears, whether large or small, founded or not. It’s part of the human experience.
And that’s what fiction is largely about. There are multiple themes of the human experience: growing up; ageing; loneliness; social rights and equality; relationships, love and coupling; death (that had to be in there, didn’t it? The ultimate dreaded ‘thief in the night’)… As readers, we in turn explore and broaden our understanding of those experiences, and we relate to their universality.
Personally, I am not aware of how much I channel my anxiety into writing. Again, is writing a form of therapy, or is anxiety used as a source of creative energy? But then, does it matter which?
The next time anxiety starts tying my mind into knots, rather than read some life-affirming quote about the pointlessness of worry (of the many thousands), I will try directing it more consciously into writing. Writing something, anything. See what happens.
That way, whether anxiety makes one more creative and intelligent or not, the next time someone comes up with a genius line such as ‘no point in worrying’, there may be a useful response.
Perkins, AM, Arnone, D,. Smallwood, J., and Mobbs, D. Thinking too much: self-generated thought as an engine of neuroticism’ in Trends in Cognitive Science, 2015.
‘New Research Says Overthinking Worriers Are Probably Creative Geniuses’ in Higher Perspectives, 2015. https://www.higherperspectives.com/overthinking-worriers-1429984438.html
Penney, A., Miedema, V., & Mazmanian, D. (2015). ‘Intelligence and emotional disorders: Is the worrying and ruminating mind a more intelligent mind? Personality and Individual Differences, 74, 90-93 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.10.005.]
Pitaru, D. ‘Keys to Creativity: Using anxiety to create’ on Psych Central. https://blogs.psychcentral.com/unleash-creativity/2015/01/keys-to-creativity-using-anxiety-to-create/ retrieved 13 October 2018.