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.

Cognitive disinhibition occurs when we’re unable to ignore irrelevant or extraneous information. Think of it this way: Every day, every minute, we’re bombarded by data — lots of data. It’s impossible to attend to all this information. Fortunately, we have mental filters that block this information from reaching our conscious awareness and take care of the behind-the-scenes processing, Carson writes.

One of these filters is called latent inhibition (LI). In a 2003 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Carson and colleagues defined LI as: “the varying capacity of the brain to screen from current attentional focus stimuli previously experienced as irrelevant.”

Everyone is different in how much information their brains filter out. Research has found that reduced LI is associated with increased vulnerability to schizophrenia and the full-blown disorder. In the Scientific American article, Carson theorizes why:

“Reduced LI appears to increase the amount of unfiltered stimuli reaching our conscious awareness and is associated with offbeat thoughts and hallucinations. It is easy to see that allowing unfiltered information into consciousness could lead to strange perceptual experiences, such as hearing voices or seeing imaginary people.”

Cognitive disinhibition also provides some clues about why highly creative people turn inward and don’t focus much on day-to-day tasks:

“Reduced cognitive filtering could explain the tendency of highly creative people to focus intensely on the content of their inner world at the expense of social or even self-care needs. (Beethoven, for example, had difficulty tending to his own cleanliness.) When conscious awareness is overpopulated with unusual and unfiltered stimuli, it is difficult not to focus attention on that inner universe.”

Of course, we know that not everyone who’s weird is creative. What’s the missing link?

According to Carson’s research with Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto, individuals who score high on creative scales also have high IQ and a high working-memory capacity. In the 2003 article, Carson, Peterson and Higgins write:

“In all of our studies and analyses, high IQ, when combined with low LI, was associated with increased creative achievement. These results are particularly stunning in the analysis of eminent achievers and high-functioning controls. High IQ clearly appeared to augment the tendency toward high creative achievement characteristic of low-LI individuals.

These results lend support to the theory that there may be qualitative (e.g., failure to filter out irrelevant stimuli) as well as quantitative (e.g., high IQ) differences in the processes underlying creative versus normal cognition.”

(Here’s a press release of the research.)

Brain Research & Cognitive Disinhibition

Electroencephalography (EEG) studies substantiate the idea of cognitive disinhibition. Specifically, this research has found that when creative people are doing creative tasks, they tend to have more alpha brain waves, Carson reports in the article.

Colin Martindale of the University of Maine and his colleagues, who first conducted the series of studies on creativity using EEG, attribute the increased alpha waves to “decreased cortical arousal and defocused attention,” according to Carson. They believe that creative people attend to more information as they’re creatively working.

Andreas Fink and researchers at the University of Graz in Austria replicated Martindale’s research. But his team believes that the alpha waves indicate that highly creative people are more focused on internal stimuli (i.e., their inner worlds), which is a schizotypal trait.

Recently, Carson published her theory on the connection between creativity and eccentricity, the shared vulnerability model, in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. She posits that some of the biological vulnerabilities that predispose individuals to disorders like schizophrenia are shared by some highly creative individuals. These individuals are more open — thanks to latent inhibition, for instance — to novel, creative ideas than folks whose mental filters do suppress scores of irrelevant information. However, they’re protected from psychopathology by traits such as high IQ and increased working memory capacity.

She and Peterson and Higgins touched on this in their 2003 article:

“…These results also support the theory that highly creative individuals and psychotic-prone individuals may possess neurobiological similarities, perhaps genetically determined, that present either as psychotic predisposition on the one hand or as unusual creative potential on the other on the basis of the presence of moderating cognitive factors such as high IQ (e.g., Berenbaum & Fujita, 1994; Dykes & McGhie, 1976; Eysenck, 1995). These moderating factors may allow an individual to override a “deficit” in early selective attentional processing with a high-functioning mechanism at a later, more controlled level of selective processing. The highly creative individual may be privileged to access a greater inventory of unfiltered stimuli during early processing, thereby increasing the odds of original recombinant ideation. Thus, a deficit that is generally associated with pathology may well impart a creative advantage in the presence of other cognitive strengths such as high IQ.”

What are your thoughts on these research studies? What about creativity in general? Do you think there’s a link between creativity and eccentricity? What about creativity and psychopathology?

See here for an excerpt of the book, Your Creative Brain.