Neuroticism / Penseroso

* Adam M. Perkins, Danilo Arnone, Jonathan Smallwood, and Dean Mobbs, ‘Thinking Too Much: Self-Generated Thought as the Engine of Neuroticism’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19 (2015), 492-8.

Having promised here that impulsivity would be a theme – perhaps the theme – of 2016, it’s a bit odd that I should be posting about neuroticism. This may tell you the truth about me. It also reflects a wish to write a longish post after a run of, generally, briefer ones. And this topic has been on my mind ever since the Perkins et al. essay came out.
      They aim to link up positive and negative manifestations of ‘self-generated thought’ (SGT), giving more scientific foundations, in effect, to the stereotype of the neurotic artists. The idea is that debilitating sensitivity to possible threats, the tendency to think (perhaps uncontrollably) about things that are not present or imminent, and the ability to imagine, are all linked.
      The Default Mode Network (DMN) has been mentioned in this blog before (here and here). This is a set of brain regions that are active even when there are no stimuli to be processed. Some propose that this network, in the forms of dreams, daydreams, plans, and imaginings, is where our minds put us in the heart of the observed world. The DMN helps us tell the stories we need to tell to understand our relationships to past, present, and future.
      Perkins et al. argue that we now have substantial reasons (and they cite various studies to make the point) to see neuroticism and creativity, and other characteristics (some desirable, some not) as well, as the work of the same mental systems. SGT is obviously a thing to be treasured, the result of an amazing process of evolution. It can, though, breed unhappiness.
      In conclusion, Perkins et al, say that ‘neuroticism is one of the most intriguing personality features because its functional correlates capture aspects of the human condition at both beneficial and detrimental ends of the continuum… because SGT allows us to imagine realities different to way they are right now, we argue that it underpins our capacity to solve problems in creative and original ways’.
      Now, one of the interesting things about this essay is that (to be frank) it tells me something I might have suspected. I mean, of course I am ready to believe that my own tendency to worry is a sign that I am special. The point for the authors, though, is to argue for testable theories as to why this might be the case beyond my glib intuition.


* Alan D. Pickering, Luke D. Smillie, and Colin G. DeYoung, ‘Neurotic Individuals are not Creative Thinkers’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2016), 1-2.
* Adam M. Perkins, Danilo Arnone, Jonathan Smallwood, and Dean Mobbs, ‘Response to Pickering et al.’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2016), 2-3.

Not everyone is convinced: Pickering et al. weigh in against the main premises of the neurotic-creative link (which caused a bit of a media hubbub). They cite studies that present evidence to the contrary, and they also point to evidence that neurotic traits may be linked to other areas of the brain (the amygdala and insula). They’re pretty categorical that the links made are unwarranted, and that geniuses have achieved their creative feats in spite of neurotic tendencies, not because of them.
      Perkins et al. exercise their right to reply, and maintain that there is a fundamental similarity because ‘they all depend on the capacity to represent information that is distinct from the perceptual environment in which the cognition occurs’, whereas ‘the differences depend on the different sources of information that are integrated’. They don’t (it seems to me) shed doubt on the experiments pointing at different causes for neuroticism, but they do get across that SGT is (i) ‘poorly understood’, and (ii) responsible for advantages and disadvantages.
      Where does this leave the fretful literary critic? Well, in my case, it makes me think a bit of Hamlet, in that it seems highly legitimate to see him as a test of whether the capacity to imagine more than the situation demands brings benefit (in that he has a special, heightened consciousness of the morals and the genre of revenge) or the opposite (in that he is debilitated to the point of nausea).
      It also makes me think about Milton’s great poem ‘Il Penseroso’, in which a pensive character is described. The poem is a foil to another, ‘L’Allegro’, in which a lively, impulsive character is described. It’s long, but it’s full of pointed thoughts about how creativity relates to certain characteristic ways of thinking. (As in other long quotations in this blog you’ll find annotation if you however your mouse or prod your finger at highlighted words.)
      Before launching into it, however, there are two things to be said: one is that the psychological characteristic that dominates ‘Il Penseroso’ is melancholy, and that is not the same thing as neuroticism. In Robert Burton’s famous Anatomy of Melancholy many qualities of melancholy do sound like the characteristics of neuroticism (skittish, uncontrollable thoughts; a disposition towards the negative, etc.), and Hamlet surely belongs to both camps. However, the intersection isn’t perfect and I must not pretend it is.
      The other thing to say is that, as my discussion of ‘Il Penseroso’ grew, it proved inseparable from ‘L’Allegro’, so I will be back to talk about that in another post. What Milton in these poems knows about neuroticism, SGT, and indeed impulsivity, happens in dialogic form. So this topic will be back.


Il Penseroso

Hence vain deluding ,
The brood of folly without father bred,
How little you bested,
Or fill the fixed mind with all your toyes;
Dwell in som idle brain,
And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess,
As thick and numberless
As the gay motes that people the Sun Beams,
Or likest hovering dreams
The fickle Pensioners of Morpheus train.
But hail thou Goddes, sage and holy,
Hail divinest ,
Whose Saintly visage is too bright
To hit the Sense of human sight;
And therfore to our weaker view,
Ore laid with black staid Wisdoms hue.
Black, but such as in esteem,
Prince Memnons sister might beseem,
Or that Starr’d Ethiope Queen that strove
To set her beauties praise above
The Sea Nymphs, and their powers offended.
Yet thou art higher far descended,
Thee bright-hair’d Vesta long of yore,
To Saturn bore;
His daughter she (in Saturns raign,
Such mixture was not held a stain).
Oft in glimmering Bowres, and glades
He met her, and in secret shades
Of woody Ida’s inmost grove,
While yet there was no fear of Jove.
Com pensive Nun, devout and pure,
Sober, stedfast, and demure,
All in a robe of darkest grain,
Flowing with majestick train,
And sable stole of Cipres Lawn,
Over thy decent shoulders drawn.
Com, but keep thy wonted state,
With eev’n step, and musing gate,
And looks commercing with the skies,
Thy :
There held in holy passion still,
Forget thy self to Marble, till
With a sad downward cast,
Thou fix them on the earth as fast.
And joyn with thee calm Peace, and Quiet,
Spare Fast, that oft with gods doth diet,
And hears the Muses in a ring,
Ay round about Joves Altar sing.
And adde to these retired leasure,
That in trim Gardens takes his pleasure;
But first, and chiefest, with thee bring,
Him that yon soars on golden wing,
Guiding the fiery-wheeled throne,
The Cherub Contemplation,
And the mute Silence hist along,
‘Less Philomel will daign a Song,
In her sweetest, saddest plight,
Smoothing the rugged brow of night,
While Cynthia checks her Dragon yoke,
Gently o’re th’ accustom’d Oke;
Sweet Bird that shunn’st ,
Most musicall, most melancholy!
Thee Chauntress oft the Woods among,
I woo to hear thy even-Song;
And missing thee, I walk unseen
On the dry smooth-shaven Green,
To behold the wandring Moon,
Riding neer her highest noon,
one that had bin led astray
Through the Heav’ns wide pathles way;
And oft, as if her head she bow’d,
Stooping through a fleecy cloud.
Oft on a Plat of rising ground,
I hear the far-off Curfeu sound,
Over som wide-water’d shoar,
Swinging slow with sullen roar;
Or if the Ayr will not permit,
Som still removed place will fit,
Where glowing Embers through the room
Teach light to counterfeit a gloom,
Far from all resort of mirth,
Save the Cricket on the hearth,
Or the Belmans drousie charm,
To bless the dores from nightly harm:
Or let my Lamp at midnight hour,
Be seen in som high lonely Towr,
Where I may oft out-watch the Bear,
With thrice great Hermes, or unsphear
The spirit of Plato to unfold

The immortal mind that hath forsook
Her mansion in this fleshly nook…


Having aspired to a long post, I have created one. But it is time to move on, long before ‘Il Penseroso’ exhausts itself. It goes on to portray more of the imaginative reach of human creativity, and the speaker dedicates himself to the goddess. More on this soon…

The poem sets itself up as an answer to ‘L’Allegro’, defining itself immediately against the kind of pursuit of pleasure found there.
The description of the figure of Melancholy predictably focuses on darkness and shade, but it makes an immediate case for the brightness of her appearance. Milton’s speaker is proposing something like Perkins et al.: that we need to appreciate the illumination that a sombre mood might reveal. Melancholy is allied to contemplation and, in the end, to visionary qualities.
The mythical parents claimed here are significant. Saturn is the brooding tyrannical God who was overthrown by his son Jupiter. Vesta was the goddess of the hearth and home, source of the brightness in Melancholy.
The poem situates poetic inspiration, the capacity to see beyond the immediate sensory world, in the demure eyes of Melancholy, rather than in livelier qualities.
Apparently more negative than ‘marble’; but the speaker presents a scenario in which a ‘leaden’ quality must be valued.
Here we are seeing something like ‘self-generated thought’, winding into and out of its environment, praising silence up to a point, but tuning in to certain sounds of its own.
The force of ‘like’ is interesting. Has the speaker been led astray or not? The question parallels the one underlying the argument of Perkins et al.: is the debilitating distraction of neuroticism redeemed, overall, by the creative powers to which it is allied? The argument of ‘Il Penseroso’ presents melancholic digression as a valuable thing.
The very epitome of non-present stimuli… melancholic thought is able to wander, fretfully but powerfully, through the universe. So there is part of a case here in the field of the psychological debate about neuroticism. Of course a poet might think this; but it gets properly interesting, I think, in the dialogue (or the gap) between this poem and its companion.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

2 thoughts on “Neuroticism / Penseroso

  1. Raphael Post author

    Thanks, Simon. I know of Francis O’Gorman’s book but I haven’t read it yet. I have this fear of a conversation that goes like this… Family Member: ‘What’s your book about?’ Me: ‘Worrying.’ Family Member: ‘Don’t you know enough about that already?!?!?!?!’.


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