If they are highly sensitive, people tend to notice more of their outer and inner environments, and process more sensory information. All of which can help make us more creative.
Some areas of creative expression are especially appropriate for emotional sensitivity, an aspect of the trait for many people.
One example was actor Heath Ledger.
Director Todd Haynes commented after his death, “Heath was a true artist, a deeply sensitive man, an explorer, gifted and wise beyond his years.” His partner for several years, actor Michelle Williams commented about his vulnerability and underlying sensitivity.
One of the influences on my concept of “artist” was Charlton Heston as Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1965 – high passion, high drama, plenty of sturm and drang.
Hardly a contemplative type.
So is this sort of highly excited or agitated state more conducive to being creative?
The Yerkes–Dodson law developed by psychologists in 1908 showed that, at least for the most part, “performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases.” [From the Wikipedia page on the subject.]
Of course, different kinds of creative expression have different demands on attention and body movement. A performance arena like acting or music require a level of physical arousal that writing may not.
But what about emotional arousal versus calm?
One of the enduring ideas about creative inspiration is that we have to wait for it or somehow encourage it to “visit us” – for example as a Muse – in order to do anything creative.
Professor R. Keith Sawyer, PhD, is a leading expert on creativity, with research in business innovation, organizational dynamics, children’s play, artistic and scientific creativity.
His books include Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation.
In a Time magazine article, he addressed questions about myths and other aspects of creative minds.
“If you spend too much time being like everybody else, you decrease your chances of coming up with something different.” Robert Ornstein, PhD
Being highly sensitive is a common personality trait with creative people.
In my earlier post Being Highly Sensitive, Being Creative, I quoted psychologist Elaine Aron: “Highly sensitive individuals are those born with a tendency to notice more in their environment and deeply reflect on everything before acting… As a result, sensitive people, both children and adults, tend to be empathic, smart, intuitive, creative, careful, and conscientious…”
She and her husband, along with other researchers, report in a brain imaging study that highly sensitive people “have cognitive responses that appear to not be influenced by culture at all.”
“He has a passionate speech about a business plan, conceived when he was a college freshman, that he says will change the planet — making it more entertaining, more engaging, and giving humans a new way to interact with businesses and one another.”
That is a reference to a pitch for getting venture capital by entrepreneur Seth Priebatsch, in the article Just Manic Enough: Seeking Perfect Entrepreneurs, by David Segal (The New York Times, September 18, 2010).
Segal notes Priebatsch (age 21) “can work 96 hours in a row. He describes anything that distracts him and his future colleagues, even for minutes, as “evil.” … He displays many of the symptoms of a person having what psychologists call a hypomanic episode… grandiosity, an elevated and expansive mood, racing thoughts and little need for sleep.”
One technical term for the personality trait of high sensitivity is “sensory processing sensitivity” – because it involves increased sensory input and responsivity. There are some intriguing research studies on how this works at the level of the brain and nervous system and affects creative ability.
One study, for example, found that the brains of creative people appear to be more open to incoming stimuli from the surrounding environment.
(“Decreased Latent Inhibition Is Associated With Increased Creative Achievement in High-Functioning Individuals,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, September 2003.)
There is a scene in “The Social Network” in which Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is being deposed, as part of the legal process of being sued over the founding of his company.
He has an air of disdain and impatience with the proceedings, and comments to an attorney: “You have part of my attention – you have the minimum amount.
“The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing. [pauses]
“Did I adequately answer your condescending question?”
It was thrilling. Maybe because of my less than desirable levels of self-confidence and assertiveness.
(By the way, the movie is – according to a number of commenters and critics – mostly a work of fiction, as is the source book. And the real Zuckerberg has been described by co-workers and interviewers as shy and introverted, and caring about people he knows.)
How much do qualities such as confidence, self-assurance, or even arrogance, plus others often associated with a “big ego” relate to being creative?
Melora Hardin has wide-ranging creative passions including acting, directing, dancing, writing and singing.
She sang as Fantine in “Les Miserables” at the Hollywood Bowl, played “Jan” on the TV series “The Office” and is currently in the TV show “Outlaw” with Jimmy Smits.
She commented about being constantly focused and attentive toward ways to engage her talents.
“I’m always very very keen to keep my eyes and heart and ears open to opportunities to be creative.
“That’s really my reason for being on this Earth, is to find more and more opportunities to be creative, and as long as I’m looking for those, and walking through those doors, and receiving those, and participating in those, I’m going to be fine.”
Journaling Can Enhance Creativity and Health
As a child, Andrea Ashworth and her sisters suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse from two stepfathers.
Her memoir, Once in a House on Fire, recounts those experiences growing up in Manchester, England, in the 1970s and ’80s.
She went on to become one of the youngest research Fellows at Oxford University, where she earned her doctorate.
In our interview, she talked about how writing the memoir was “a real sanity-saving exercise” and way to deal with her past, and then be able to move on to writing fiction.