If You Can't Tune Out Extraneous Information You May Be Unusually Creative--Or Just Weird
As a young child, Edgar Allan Poe thought the dead would emerge from graveyards and chase him. In a prank while he studied at West Point, he used the bloody head of a dead gander to simulate the severed head of one of the officers.
Neurologist and author Richard E. Cytowic, says in a Seed Magazine essay that Virginia Woolf's affinity for ambiguity and opposing forces, her literary combination of six separate consciousnesses in one mind in her story The Waves, and her diaries filled with descriptions of madness and mood swings, sound to him like bipolar affective disorder.
Shelley Carson, a Harvard psychologist who has studied creativity and pathology, notes that Charles Dickens is said to have walked the streets of London fending off imaginary urchins with his umbrella, and that Icelandic singer Bjork attended the Oscars dressed as a swan. In her Scientific American article "The Unleashed Mind," Carson says researchers are finding reasons why highly creative people are often weirder than the rest of us. Creativity and eccentricity, she writes, are both traits that may be the result of how the brain filters incoming information.
Scientists have measured creativity by looking at actual achievement, and by examining an individual's ability to come up with new uses for ordinary things, among other tests. Eccentricity has been measured by scales that assess schizotypal personality-a variety of traits that include magical thinking, paranormal beliefs, perceptual distortions, paranoia and unusual social ineptitude. Carson notes that Schumann thought Mozart was sending him music from the grave. There's even a website about neurotic poets, which describes the peculiarities of Emily Dickinson and other literary luminaries.
Carson reports that highly creative people tend to display more schizotypal traits than less creative people. Often, creative people with schizotypal traits are related to schizophrenics. Researchers think they may have inherited the unconventional ways of thinking without inheriting the illness. What makes their thoughts and perceptions different is that they can't screen out irrelevant information. Carson calls that cognitive disinhibition. Most of our brains filter out information that seems extraneous or useless to our purpose of the moment.
"We think that the reduction in cognitive inhibition allows more material in to conscious awareness that can then be reprocessed and recombined in novel and original ways, resulting in creative ideas," Carson writes in the Scientific American. Brain imaging and EEG studies, she adds, support the idea that creative people allow more information into their conscious awareness during their creative work. Of course, not all eccentrics are creative. But the good news is that with businesses actively seeking creative ideas and solutions, unconventional thinkers may be more welcome in private and public organizations, and their oddities more tolerated.