Part II: Are high creativity, high Openness and the schizophrenic spectrum–linked?
(See Part I in “Temperament and the Big Five Openness Scale–Still problems there?” for introduction).
One of the strongest and most consistent links to Openness is that of creativity and its many measures. Daniel Nettle, a faculty member in Psychology at the University of Newcastle in England, has developed a view of creativity and Openness to Experience that is startling, at least initially.* To understand his approach we need to visit still more measures that correlate with both Openness and creativity.
Tests related to creativity: One of the commonest test groups for creativity are tests of divergent thinking. A simple but useful example is that of asking the subject to name all the possible uses for an object (for example, a brick). Answers are scored for both quantity and uniqueness. Tests of word fluency (e.g. number of words starting with N), of possible consequences of unusual situations, etc. all measure divergent thinking. Openness in general has been found to have a .39 correlation with total divergent thinking scores. Self-reported creative activity correlates with all Openness facets, but most strongly with fantasy (.46), and both aesthetics, and ideas at .43.**
Low latent inhibition. One explanation for the relationship of Openness and creativity is the concept of low latent inhibition. Normal latent inhibition is a relatively automatic brain mechanism, in which objects and stimuli of all kinds produce less and less reaction as they become more familiar. Since we are continually bombarded with both sensory and cognitive information, this allows us to ignore millions of points of information that have no new value for us. It makes it possible to proceed through the world relatively calmly. However there are people who have a much lower level of such inhibition. This may, at times produce unusual creativity in that they can link something already familiar with something new, in ways that most people do not, but it also means that they are in greater danger of being overwhelmed by a sort of sensory overload.
Hypnotic Susceptibility, Absorption, and Openness. Very early in the development of the Openness concept, scales measuring hypnotic susceptibility were used to study openness, as there seemed to be a relationship. Linked with this was the concept of Absorption. It is described as an ability to enter a state of total focus on one thought, idea or creative process. It is sometimes thought to be a temporary altered state of consciousness, with a heightened sense of reality, and sounds like the feeling that athletes have when they say they are “in the zone”. It correlates with hypnotizability, and very strongly with the Fantasy, Aesthetics and Feelings facets of Openness, but much less with the other facets.
Thick and thin boundaries. This category was developed from a very different population—that of sufferers of frequent nightmares. As a group these people did not show any indications of childhood abuse or other developmental problems and had little psychopathology, except for a tendency for some (mild) signs of the schizophrenia spectrum. They were, however, unusually trusting, sensitive and vulnerable, and—involved in unusual and often artistic life styles. Boundaries as a concept refer to the degree to which your thoughts, ideas, feelings, experiences perceptions, etc. remain in separate categories (are bounded) or, on the contrary, are allowed to interact fairly freely (have thin boundaries). Thick boundary people are thought to be able to concentrate on an issue at hand with little interference, but probably show much less creativity, while thin boundary people may have problems in keeping a sharp focus on any one thing, but make more interesting connections. From these findings, a Boundary Questionnaire was developed, and it was found that other measures (listed above) correlate well with this questionnaire including hypnotizability, absorption, and measures of creativity. Art and music students have relatively thin boundaries, while persons in non-artistic jobs tend to show thicker boundaries.
I first thought that Thin Boundaries might just be another form of Low Latent Inhibition, but they may be acting at different stages of input, with low inhibition allowing more information to enter the brain and thin boundaries allowing wider interaction once the information has come in. If so, they could act together to really swamp the vulnerable individual.
Disturbances of experience. Yet another scale strongly associated with Fantasy, Aesthetics and Feelings, is the Dissociative Experiences scale, which measures such disturbances of experience as depersonalization and derealization (the feeling that you are somehow unreal and/or not in control of yourself, and the feeling that the world is somehow unreal). Also in this category, there is the now fairly well accepted concept of schizotypy as a continuous quality of mind, ranging from perfectly normal to full factor schizophrenia. The schizotypy scale for measuring this consists of many and varied symptoms found in schizophrenia, and schizophrenia-related disorders. Even the most normal person will probably report some unusual experiences (on having heard a voice or voices, for example) while the schizophrenic patient will report a great many. One group of symptoms found in the “Unusual Experiences” scale includes such things as hearing voices, experiencing perceptual disturbances, or having magical or paranormal beliefs. Nettle reports that “When poets and artists are given Unusual Experiences scales, they score more highly than the general population, and, in fact, more or less as highly as schizophrenia patients.”* He adds that “Openness scores from the Big Five correlate with measures of Unusual Experiences, with coefficients around 0.4.” Finally, just as high Openness scorers are better at divergent thinking, so are schizophrenics, and possibly for a similar reason. He notes that “divergent thinking tasks are one of the very few classes of test that schizophrenia patients do better on than ordinary volunteers do.”
Back to the Nettle explanation.
In addition to the Personality book referenced here* Nettle has authored a provocative book entitled Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature, and given considerable thought to these connections. He uses the concept of “loosened associations” for the general explanation for this link. The concept may well include Thin Boundaries and Low Latent Inhibition, but he envisions very broadly that the creative brain in itself has developed wider networks of associated ideas, so that a given stimulus might ripple out to more loosely related terms and ideas in the creative person than in someone else. Divergent thinking success would be an example of this. He says that “Loose associations allow not just the discovery of a solution that follows from existing premises as traditional intelligence does, but the leap to some totally new way of looking at things that may yield new fruit or catch the attention of others….Thus, if I had to bet on what the psychological basis of Openness was, I would put my money on the broadening of interaction between networks of processing that in the lower-Openness mind are kept distinct.”
As Nettle sees it, the Unusual Experiences may actually be a by-product of loosened associations. “If every idea or percept generates a broad raft of associations, it is easy to see how some unusual beliefs could be arrived at. Associating what are in fact thoughts with auditory sensation leads to hearing voices. Associating random events with thoughts about absent individuals leads to ideas of telepathy or the paranormal. Hallucinations delusions and paranormal beliefs are all potentially negative effects of this broadening of associations, but it is also a powerful engine of verbal and visual creativity” His final argument would not be that creativity leads to madness or madness to creativity, but rather that looseness of associations at one level may produce high creativity (and high Openness scores) while on a higher level, contribute, to symptoms in the direction of schizophrenia. (It should be noted that Bipolar disorder is also related to high Openness, but in a different way—mainly through exceptionally high scores on the Feelings facet.)
A final interesting twist on this (well, to me anyway) is that one of the long time skeptics of the Big Five (Hans Eysenck) has always championed a Big Three rather than the Big Five. Two of his three are Extraversion/Introversion and Neuroticism/Emotional Stability. He feels that both Agreeableness and Conscientiousness should be a part of Neuroticism/Emotional Stability. His third factor is Psychoticism (presumably balanced by non-psychoticism or cognitive stability). Wouldn’t it be interesting if Thick Boundaries, Tight Associations, Normal Latent Inhibition and Low Openness were one end of the spectrum Eysenck calls Psychoticism, and Thin Boundaries, Loose Associations, Low Latent Inhibitions, Creativity and Openness were the other end. Creativity would perhaps fall at some optimal point for each individual, and psychosis at an upper and very vulnerable high end?
P.S. It still seems to me that the present Openness to Experience scale needs another look!
*Nettle, Daniel (2009). Personality. New York: Oxford University Press
** ( The references in this section come from an extensive review of the literature that was found in a dissertation online. ) Camfield David D. (2008) The Biological Basis of Openness to Experience. Brain Sciences Institute Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne Australia.