Isaac Newton’s neurotic creativity may be based on negative thinking

Researchers link creativity with area of the brain used to perceive threat and danger

Neurotics tend to be worriers but they also tend to be highly creative, and researchers believe they understand why: neurotics think too much.

Previous studies made connections between neurotic unhappiness and creativity, but no one knew what went on in the brain to make this happen. A group of researchers have come up with a theory.

Neurotics ruminate on problems, delving into their causes and the negative effects these might have. They replay these scenarios, amplifying their worries. Brain scans showed people who are good at this negative thinking displayed greater activity in regions of the medial prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is linked to the conscious perception of threat and danger.

If you can self-generate a plentiful supply of negative thoughts from an overactive brain "you can experience intense negative emotions even when there is no threat present", said Dr Adam Perkins, a researcher at King's College London and lead author in a piece published yesterday in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.


Neurotics seem to have highly active imaginations that can create threats when none are there, but that also serves creativity. The authors point to Isaac Newton, a neurotic brooder and worrier who was able to make outstanding creative breakthroughs. Neurotic creativity, they say, may come from being preprogrammed to dwell on problems for far longer than the rest of us, something Newton described doing when solving problems in mathematics.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.