Surrendering to Creativity: The Psychology of Remembering To Breathe (Part 2 of 3)

“Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.” – T.S. Eliot

What does it mean, for anxiety to be the handmaiden to creativity?  Reading this quote from T.S. Eliot, my mind wandered to think about Shae and Sansa.  For those less obsessed with George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones than me, Shae is Sansa Stark’s handmaiden in the imaginary kingdom of Westeros.  While seemingly removed from our conversation on the psychology of creativity, indulge my mid-quarter wracked brain for a moment.  The metaphor, of Shae as anxiety and Sansa as creativity, is not so far fetched. Shae masquerades as something she is not in order to remain close to Tyrion, Sansa’s future husband.   Anxiety very rarely manifests with the purpose of serving creativity; usually, instead, it leaks out of our worries over bills needing paying or difficult conversations to be had with our partner.  Anxiety serves creativity, but not because it wants to.  Helping us be creative is not anxiety’s main purpose, although it’s a bi-product we can capitalize on.  Sansa, trapped in a foreign kingdom with more foes than friends, must make the most of the situation.  Although capable of living without Shae, Sansa invariably finds her life enriched by the woman’s company.  Research suggests that creative folks, like Sansa, can choose to make the most of adversity and anxiety, building adaptive coping habits to rise above traumatic life events.   Last week’s blog post ended by examining definitions of creativity in past research and acknowledging its necessary engagement with the present. This week, we will look at how creative individuals make the most of anxiety and the ways in which unchecked anxiety can overrun creativity.

This post marks the second installment of “Surrendering to Creativity: The Psychology of Remembering to Breathe”; if you have not done so already, the author highly recommends you read Part One which was published last week.  

Environmental stressors affecting creative individuals

Although empirical discrepancies exist regarding anxiety’s impact on creativity, highly creative individuals appear to experience more stressful life events.  Examining the relationship between creativity, anxiety, and defensive responses to a subliminal threatening stimulus, Carolsson (2002) found highly creative subjects showed more signs of anxiety in response to the stimulus than individuals scoring low in creativity.  His results suggest highly creative people perceive a given situation as more stressful or threatening than others, alluding to a heightened state anxiety.  Additionally issuing his subjects the 20-item State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, Carolsson found highly creative participants showed significantly greater trait anxiety than individuals low in creativity.  With elevated state arousal and a neurotic predisposition, creative people would experience the same event as more stressful than their peers.  Carolsson’s study insinuates individuals differing in creativity do not necessarily experience a disparity in anxiety-provoking situations; rather, it appears there exists a difference in experiential quality.

Although Carlsson identifies a trend in creative personalities and their perception of threats, his study fails to address anxiety’s origins.  Research on the characteristics common to famous creators has repeatedly found a correlation between familial loss in childhood and later creativity (Onwuegbuzie, 2000; Ludwig, 1995; S. Carson, personal communication, November 10, 2008; Sicoli, 1995).  Examining the relationship between childhood giftedness and adult creative production, Onwuegbuzie (2000) reported creative individuals were three times more likely to experience a parent’s death as children than the general population; their high rate of parental loss matched that of juvenile delinquents.  Besides a mother or father’s death, Onwuegbuzie also notes numerous creative people had siblings who passed away during their youth.  Defining prominent twentieth-century female singers as women with at least two hit songs in the Billboard Top 40, Sicoli (1995) calculated at least 48% had suffered from parental loss or estrangement during childhood; his projection represented a lower bound, however, lacking self-report data from most subjects and limited by the amount of biographical information published.  While inevitable, a close family member’s death may have traumatic effects on a young child; with more creative individuals seeming to experience childhood loss, familial death may contribute to their attenuated stress.

Because inherited genes may help shape one’s personality, it becomes difficult to determine how much of creative individuals’ trait anxiety derives from their environment and how much from their biological make-up.  Comparing preference for artistic complexity among men and women, Eisenman (1968) acknowledged uncontrollable biological factors significantly affected participants’ results on the Barron Independence of Judgment Scale; a high score on the Barron Independence of Judgment Scale has previously correlated positively with creativity.  Eisenman concluded gender, unalterable by subjects, nevertheless interacts with birth order and age to affect participants’ preferred artistic complexity.  Similarly immutable, family genetics may partially determine creative individual’s predisposition to trait anxiety.  Whether inherited or induced by developmental environment, familial stress appears to pervade the lives of creative individuals.

In addition to parental loss and estrangement, several studies have found famous creative people suffered disproportionately from physical deformity and chronic illness (Onwuegbuzie, 2000; Ludwig, 1995; S. Carson, personal communication, November 10, 2008; Dewey, Steinberg, & Coulson, 1998).  Dewey et al. (1998) interviewed twenty British painters, attempting to outline the conditions conducive for creativity.  More than half of the artists reported plaguing physical ailments, ranging from sinus problems to cancer.  Elucidating how childhood illness can lead to social isolation and solitary hobbies, Ludwig (1995) illustrates the importance of Dewey et al.’s correlational data.  Like Dewey et al., Ludwig found highly creative individuals suffered from physical disabilities and life-threatening illnesses more frequently than people scoring lower in creativity.  In achieving successful novel production, however, creative individuals learned perseverance; they refused to let their illness or disability become a handicap.  Dealing with physical stress, creative individuals may have developed a coping mechanism applicable to later anxiety; having overcome a near-deadly illness or crippling deformity, they may view any problem as solvable or any atypical solution as plausible.  Known limitations become antiquated, augmenting the desire to break conventions.  Despite generating more physical stress, disease and disabilities enable creative individuals to practice transcending anxious situations.

The effect of anxiety and stress on creativity

Fewer novel solutions. While familial and physical ailments introduce creative individuals to stressors, some researchers argue anxiety hinders creativity under certain conditions.  Rollins and Calder (1975) assessed 136 tenth grade boys’ response to failure and success, comparing students comprising the top third of their class (“overachievers”) to their peers in the lowest academic third (“underachievers”).  Invoking situational stress, one component of trait anxiety, their manipulation aimed to threaten subjects’ perception of personal adequacy.  Partaking in a shuffleboard-type game, participants in the Success condition received positive feedback no matter what strategy they employed; boys in the Failure condition, however, received only positive feedback sporadically, regardless of the strategies they used.  Counting the number of different, novel strategies each boy employed, Rollins and Calder determined participants’ psychological flexibility.  They found underachievers in the successful condition demonstrated over two times the psychological flexibility as underachievers given failure feedback.  At first glance, their results suggest a stressful context mediates individual’s creative output; receiving inconsistent measurements of their success, underachievers stopped producing novel solutions.  Examining the results from the overachievers in each condition belies anxiety’s completely inhibitory effect on creativity.  Although overachieving students in the failure manipulation did not have higher psychological flexibility than overachievers receiving successful feedback in every trial, they had produced a stable number of responses across trials.  Whereas overachievers in the success condition and all underachievers tried fewer novel solutions in the last trial compared to the first, Failure overachievers did not decrease in the amount of new strategies they employed.  Although the exact relationship between creativity and academic performance remains uncertain, Rollins and Calder’s results from the Failure overachievers demonstrate stress arising from an inability to succeed does not necessarily dampen the quantity of novel production.  Other factors, like academic rank, may mediate anxiety’s affect on creativity, causing some individuals to give up when faced with trouble while others choose to persevere.

Hampered components of creativity. While stress from failure may decrease creative production directly, anxiety also acts on factors enabling creativity.  Upmanyu, Bhardwaj and Singh (1996), testing the relationship between word-association emotional indicators, creativity, and personality traits, issued 250 graduate students the Word Association Test and the IPAT Anxiety Scale Questionnaire.  They reported a significant correlation between Late Response Time and suspicion, finding participants high in the trait took longer to respond to word associations and often repeated the stimulus phrase.  Although suspicion does not directly measure anxiety, Upmanyu et al. regarded suspicion as within the family of anxiety.  Applying their definition, anxiety appears to interfere with one’s ability to think divergently or freely associate.  Participants could give any answer, yet suspicious subjects hesitated before replying; their late response time belied an anxiety about responding.  Questioning or searching for the “correct” answer, individuals no longer engaged in the play of consciousness Horan (2007) deems critical to creative thinking.  While quick thinking does not automatically translate into attenuated creativity, free association demonstrates a liberated disregard for the conventional or expected norms.  A correlation between suspicion and late response times suggests anxious individuals may not be maximizing their creative capacity, struggling to freely associate and think divergently.

Without amassing domain-specific knowledge, however, free association remains uninformed; individuals will have trouble arriving at a novel solution if they cannot recognize the problem first.  Studying statistic anxiety’s affect on mathematic students, Onwuegbuzie (2000) found social anxiety results in lower perceived creativity.  Measuring participants’ perceived self-worth, he found a negative correlation between perceived creativity and fear of asking for help.  Although Onwuegbuzie inquired about anxiety specific to statistics, his findings generalize to other domains as well.  Perceiving oneself as less creative, an individual afraid to seek help undermines his actual creative abilities; choosing not to pursue unknown knowledge, he forfeits his chance to better understand that domain.   Reviewing literature on creativity across the lifespan, Simonton (1988) acknowledges individuals produce their most creative works at a different age in each domain.  He emphasizes, however, all domains share a trend in creative output, revealing a knowledge-gathering period must pass before individuals can contribute their own novel ideas; according to his model, poets reach their optimal career age at 19 while historians require longer to develop a comprehensive knowledge base, not creatively peaking until age 40.  If individuals suffering from creative self-doubt fail to ask questions, they will have a greater difficulty building their knowledge base; without actively seeking information, they cannot progress towards developing their own contributions to the field.

In the final installment in the Psychology of Creativity series next week, we will discuss evidence-based methods for channeling creativity during periods of high stress and offer some concrete suggestions for how to plan for the future while living in the present.