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May 2011



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By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
Associate Editor

It’s common knowledge that creatives can be eccentric. We’ve seen this throughout history. Even Plato and Aristotle observed odd behaviors among playwrights and poets, writes Harvard University researcher Shelley Carson, author of Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity and Innovation in Your Life, in the May/June 2011 issue of Scientific American.

She gave several examples of creatives’ strange behaviors:

“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.”

But what’s most compelling is that research has corroborated the connection between creativity and eccentricity. And it starts, interestingly enough, with schizotypal personality, a milder version of schizotypal personality disorder.

According to Carson in the article:

“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).”

Not everyone with schizotypal personality has a personality disorder, however. Many are bright and high-functioning.

Carson cited various studies that found that creative people tend to score higher on schizotypal surveys. For instance, her research has revealed that some creative students tend to report magical thinking and odd perceptual experiences.

“In my research at Harvard, done in part with my colleague Cynthia A. Meyersburg, I have found that study participants who score high in a measure of creative achievement in the arts are more likely to endorse magical thinking — such as belief in telepathic communication, dreams that portend the future, and memories of past lives. These participants are also more likely to attest to unusual perceptual experiences, such as having frequent déjà vu and hearing voices whispering in the wind.”

Cognitive Disinhibition

It isn’t that having schizotypal personality predisposes one to creativity, Carson clarifies in the article. It’s more complex than that. Instead, a cognitive mechanism called cognitive disinhibition may underlie eccentricity.


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