“Everything great in the world comes from neurotics. They alone have founded our religions and composed our masterpieces.” ~ Marcel Proust
When people hear the term ‘overthinking’, it comes rife with negative connotations, such as anxiety or the inability to make decisions in an appropriate manner. It is often referred to as “analysis paralysis”, in that it can lead to a mental stalemate due to endless rumination.
Indeed, chronic worrying as a psychological symptom is often connected to anxiety disorders like General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Yet this seemingly adversarial use of our imagination may not be entirely comprised of impediments, as most of mainstream society would have us believe.
Obviously, if someone is a potential danger to themselves or others, proper treatment can be a godsend. So too for those experiencing a significantly impaired quality of life, or effectiveness, in their careers and/or relationships. There are many examples of when overthinking is a detriment.
As with everything, however, it is not so cut and dry. (Oh, the irony!) New research stemming from the U.K. suggests that overthinkers may also have a tendency to display higher levels of artistic creativity. Quite a far cry from the one-sided, anxiety-ridden images the popular media has us continually believing.
Neuroticism: How Worrying Spurs Genius (According to Science)
Dr. Adam M. Perkins, a neuroscientist at King’s College London, led a study that examined the link between anxiety and a strong imagination. When asked about the findings, he explained:
“For specific neural reasons, high scorers on neuroticism have a highly active imagination, which acts as a built-in threat generator.”
In other words, perpetual worriers tend to be more imaginative than their non-worrying counterparts because they are constantly engaged in a form of creative problem solving where their minds are actively trying to screen for potential risks.
Neuroticism as an Evolutionary Trait Helped Early Humans Adapt
In the era of hunter-gatherers, overthinking was not only desirable, but also necessary for our survival in harsh environments and against other predators.
Our ancestors were forced to develop a stronger cognitive acuity than any of the other animals we were competing with in order to become dominant. Otherwise, we risked injury, death and possible extinction. So “worrying” was, in reality, a survival mechanism for self-preservation.
In particular, possessing the ability to plan ahead, beyond the present or the immediate, was an exceptionally valuable skill. An example of this could be illustrated in the primal instinct of food storage and preparation that persists even today. In the summer months, ancient man knew that he needed to accumulate a surplus of food to prepare for the winter where opportunities for food cultivation become scarce.
Prominent People Tend to Be Neurotic
History has shown that many of the greatest artists and scientists of past generations had a tendency to display symptoms of neurosis, and that they were not your typical lighthearted, free-minded types. It appears that individuals who have a carefree attitude rarely ever go on to accomplishing historic feats, Dr. Perkins asserts.
We have a useful sanity check for our theory because it is easy to observe that many geniuses seem to have a brooding, unhappy tendency that hints they are fairly high on the neuroticism spectrum.
For example, think of the life stories of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Vincent Van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, etc. Perhaps the link between creativity and neuroticism was summed up most succinctly of all by John Lennon when he said, simply: ‘Genius is pain.’
Dr. Perkins’ assessment of the link between creativity and neuroticism also illustrates that being highly intelligent can come with some hidden caveats that the average person might not necessarily be able to comprehend.
The pain that is associated with possessing such intellect can cause some geniuses to grow frightened about the harsh realities of ‘knowing’. And knowing too much can fuel a self-perpetuating cycle of worry, which serves as additional layers of psychological distress.
But what if we could get a hold on the process somehow, without dulling the blade?
Managing Pathological Overthinking
We know that the brain is an extremely complex structure — one that even neuroscientists are only beginning to understand. Research on neuroticism is still largely in its preliminary stage, but the work completed by Dr. Perkins and his colleagues will hopefully unravel new avenues for investigating the roots of chronic worrying and other similar anxiety disorders.
Stopping your incessant need to overthink may not be the most feasible solution for getting your thoughts under control. Instead, being mindful of the condition itself will likely make the coping process more manageable.
This is a similar idea to certain tenets in Buddhism — monitoring of ones thoughts. While an overactive, overthinking mind may eventually come to some ingenious conclusions, it has quite the gauntlet to fare along the way, and it takes many hits, due mostly to fear-charged/fear-inducing thoughts that are automatic, negative and doubtful. And while doubt can indeed serve a utilitarian purpose, negativity is mostly fodder and should be treated as such.
The key here is recognizing them as they arise and working with them.
Your Thoughts As a Wild Horse — Don’t Tame Them, Work With Them
Think of it as if you were on the back of an unbroken horse you’re in the process of taming as it takes you towards its destination. You don’t want to do anything too drastic, as you’ll get thrown, or possibly end up lost. But you also don’t want to break the creature completely, as you’ll deny it the organic process of taking you where its instinct knows it wants to go.
You need to tune into the rhythm, feel and nuances of the horse’s movement and learn to recognize when to spur, when to rein and when to let it trot, gallop or run–all the while remembering that there are two of you, and you’re working with one another. Neither is autonomous. Just don’t let it get so out of control that things become dangerous (anxiety or panic attack) and keep it from making pointless detours that will only slow you down (negativity).
Your Thoughts on Paper — So You Can SEE Them
Another one of the most effective ways of dealing with overthinking is to translate your thoughts into writing. When you transition the mental conversation that you are having in your head onto paper, you can more effectively interpret the jumbled content in a format that is visually perceivable. Sorting through your thoughts on paper can prove to be incredibly valuable, especially when you are trying to rationalize your way through a particularly difficult conundrum.
So, is “analysis paralysis” really a mental crutch? Or, is it an indicator of a flourishing imagination that is yearning to be tamed? Both, most likely. The potential for brilliance from overthinking comes from its neurotic nature, from its uncanny ability to lay out (and play out) any number of scenarios in mere instants, and following them through from there, and from there… But if manipulated correctly, it could very well be channelled into a force of creative ingenuity.