Beautiful Minds – Schizotypy, Flow, and the Artist’s Experience

By Scott Barry Kaufman
Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist at NYU interested in intelligence and creativity development. He is the author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.

Musings on the many paths to greatness.
Is the creative experience schizo?

43902-29188Flow- the mental state of being completely present and fully immersed in a task- is a strong contributor to creativity. When in flow, the creator and the universe become one, outside distractions recede from consciousness, and one’s mind is fully open and attuned to the act of creating. Since flow is so essential to creativity and well-being across many slices of life- from sports to music to physics to religion to spirituality to sex- it’s important that we learn more about the characteristics associated with flow so that we may all learn how to tap into this precious mental resource.

In a recent study reported in Schizophrenia Bulletin, Nelson and Rawlings propose that a mild form of schizophrenia called schizotypy may be positively associated with the experience of creative flow. Schizophrenia is a debilitating mental illness that affects roughly 1% of the population and involves altered states of consciousness and “abnormal” perceptual experiences. Schizotypy, which is a watered-down version of schizophrenia, consists of a constellation of personality traits that are evident in some degree in everyone.

High levels of schizotypy are typically found in relatives of individuals with full fledged schizophrenia. Some researchers have proposed that the genes that underlie schizophrenia may remain in the human gene pool because of the benefits those with schizotypy receive in terms of creativity; those with schizotypy have the genes that that may contribute to creativity without the debilitating genes that would prevent them from achieving their maximum potential.

43902-29243Research confirms a link between schizotypy and creative achievement. In particular, “positive” schizotypal traits such as unusual perceptual experiences and magical beliefs tend to be elevated in artists and “negative” schizotypal traits such as physical and social anhedonia and introversion tend to be associated with mathematical and scientific creativity.

But what about the connection between schizotypy and flow? Nelson and Rawlings make the intriguing suggestion that

“Positive schizotypy is associated with central features of ‘flow’-type experience, including distinct shift in phenomenological experience, deep absorption, focus on present experience, and sense of pleasure.”

Similarly, in her fascinating and informative book Writing in Flow, Susan K. Perry comments that

“It shouldn’t play into any of your anxieties about the loss of control that comes with flow if I share with you that looseness and the ability to cross mental boundaries are aspects of both schizophrenic thinking and creative thinking.”

To examine the connection between positive schizotypy and the experience of flow, Nelson and Rawlings had a sample of 100 artists from a wide range of artistic fields (including music, visual arts, theatre, and literature) report aspects of their personality, their experiences of creativity, and their levels of “postitive” schizotypal traits such as affective disturbance and mental boundaries.

Their Experience of Creativity Questionnaire measured the following components:

43902-29245Distinct Experience, “related to the creative process being a definite shift in nature or type of experience. This change in experience included such aspects as loss of self-awareness, a breakdown of boundaries, a sense of contact with a force beyond the individual self, and a confidence and effortlessness about the artistic activity.”

Anxiety, “related to a sense of anxiety and vulnerability associated with the creative process, particularly after completion of the process.”

Absorption, related to “the artist’s feeling inspired and being deeply absorbed in the artistic activity.”

Power/Pleasure , “related to a sense of control, power, and pleasure felt during the creative process.”

Clarity/Preparation, “a sense of certainty and clarity about the direction in which the artistic activity should proceed, including the meaning of the piece of work, and to cultivating an appropriate mood for the creative process.”

Consistent with prior research, they found that their sample of artists scored higher than the average population (based on norm data) on the positive schizotypal traits of unipolar affective disturbance and thin boundaries as well as the personality traits of Openness to Experience and Neuroticism.

Interestingly, they didn’t replicate research showing elevated levels of bipolar mood disorder in artists. As a possible explanation, the researchers point out that their sample consists of mainly contemporary artists. As they point out, “creativity is a construct that varies not only across fields, but also across styles and artistic movements.”

Indeed, clinical psychologist Louis A. Sass notes in his article, “Schizophrenia, Modernism and the ‘Creative Imagination’: On Creativity and Psychopathology,” that most of the prior work on the link between bipolar and artistic creativity has been based on eminent classical artists from earlier periods, particularly the Romantic period. In his book, “Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature and Thought,” Sass further makes the case that modernistic and postmodern artists report psychotic or schizotypal experiences.

According to Nelson and Rawlings:

“These affinities include an adversarial stance, perspectivism and relativism, a certain fragmentation and passivization of the ego, loss of the ”worldhood of the world,” rejection or loss of the sense of temporal flow or narrative unity, forms of intense self-reference and extreme and pervasive detachment or emotional distancing.”

Most interestingly, Nelson and Rawlings found that the positive schizotypal traits of unipolar affective disturbance and thin boundaries were significantly associated with four components from their Experience of Creativity Questionnaire: distinct experience, anxiety, absorption, and power/pleasure. Note that three of these components (distinct experience, absorption, and power/pleasure) are directly related to the experience of flow.

These findings are fascinating and beg the question: what mechanism or set of mechanisms account for the association between schizotypy and the experience of flow? The researchers argue that latent inhibition is of particular relevance to understanding this association (also see Schizophrenic Thought: Madness or Potential for Genius? and Are People With Schizophrenia Living a Dream?).

43902-29187Reduced latent inhibition represents an inability to screen out from awareness stimuli that have previously been tagged as irrelevant. Indeed, prior research has shown an association between reduced latent inhibition and psychosis. However, emeritus Professor David R. Hemsley at King’s College, London argues that while this loosening of expectations based on previous experience may cause a disruption in sense of self, this mental process may also confer advantages for creativity. Recent research showing common genetic and neurotransmitter linkages (particularly dopamine) between both schizophrenia and creativity support this association at a biological level (see Why Creative Folks Blink a Lot).

As the researchers note, the million dollar question is this: What distinguishes the person who in the Philosopher Kierkegaard’s phrase “drowns in possibility” from the person who is able to use his or her reduced latent inhibition in a way that enables heightened levels of creativity?

Some researchers have argued that intelligence and working memory may be factors that protect the individual with creative potential from falling over the edge into madness. Factors such as working memory and high executive functioning (which tend to show activations in the prefrontal cortex of the brain) may enable the individual with reduced latent inhibition to not go mad from the influx of emotions and sensations and make good use of the broad range of novel input.

Indeed, researchers Shelley Carson and Jordan Peterson have shown that this particular combination of high IQ and reduced latent inhibition is associated with creative achievement. Additionally, I’ve done research showing that reduced latent inhibition is associated with a faith in affective intuition in students with in tact executive functioning (see Schizophrenic Thought: Madness or Potential for Genius?).

So how would reduced latent inhibition be associated with the phenomenology of flow? Nelson and Rawlings reason that the reduced latent inhibition’s failure to precategorize stimuli as irrelevant would “result in immediate experience not being shaped or determined by preceding events” and

“it is precisely this newness of appreciation, and the associated sense of exploration and discovery, that stimulates the deep immersion in the creative process, which itself may trigger a shift in quality of experience, generally in terms of an intensification or heightening of experience.”

reckon that it is this Openness to Experience aspect (and associated functioning of the dopaminergic neurotransmitter system) that is crucial to understanding the schizotypy/flow connection. As my own research program and that of others (e.g., Jordan Peterson) is showing, self-reported Openness to Experience is in fact related to reduced latent inhibition, suggesting that Openness to Experience is a phenotype that is related to actual information processing.

Positive schizotypy, latent inhibition, and flow

Nelson and Rawlings’ study suggests that positive schizotypy, latent inhibition, and flow are intimately related. A lot more research needs to be done, however, in order to more fully understand the relations between these three constructs. Nonetheless, I think their study breaks new ground in a number of ways.

Firstly, they focus on the phenomenology of the creative experience. Prior research has shown linkages between schizotypy and creative achievement but not what it’s like to experience flow. I personally think this sort of research is the way forward.

Secondly, they propose a mechanism (latent inhibition) that may account for the link between schizotypy and the experience of flow. While psychologists such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have done a remarkable job increasing the public’s awareness of the importance of flow and the factor’s that enable flow, rigorous scientific research on the cognitive mechanisms underlying flow have been lacking. Nelson and Rawling provide some intriguing possibilities for future research that would put flow on more firm scientific grounding.

Thirdly, they focus on a particular demographic- artists. I think this approach is important, and future work should look at the relation between both positive and negative schizotypy, latent inhibition, and flow using creators in both the arts and sciences to assess similarities and differences between the various groups (scientists also often enter a flow state when engaging in their work).

This is an exciting time for research on the linkages between mental illness and creativity. Researchers such as Geoffrey Miller, Daniel Nettle, Dennis Kinney, Lars Penke, Ruth Richards, Andrew Shaner, Paul Silvia, Oshin Vartanian, Neus Barrantes-Vidal, Dasha Zabelina, and many others are shedding lght on the the nature and nurture of the mental illness/creativity connection. Also look out for creativity researcher James C. Kaufman’s upcoming edited volume on the creativity-mental illness link. He has put together a terrific line-up of scholars who are tackling the connection from different perspectives using different methodologies.

Additionally, I’m currently collaborating with researchers Justin Garcia and Leslie Heywood at SUNY Binghamton on a study looking at the genetic basis of creativity and we will be investigating common genetic linkages between schizotypy and creativity. I’m also collaborating with a great team of researchers (Aaron Kozbelt, Michael Magee, Joe Kim, Deborah Walder, and Celine Joiris ) on a book chapter for James’ volume where we are reviewing the literature on the evolutionary genetic basis for the psychosis-creativity link. I also have been working with the philosopher Elliot Samuel Paul, who makes a compelling case that creativity (dispositions which may also show linkages to various forms of mental illness) is a neglected virtue in the philosophical literature on virtue theory.

I look forward to reporting in future blog posts the findings of my colleagues and I. Hopefully this research will allow for a deeper appreciation of the potential for creativity in those who are prone to psychosis. While debilitating mental illness is certainly not conducive to creativity, exciting new research is starting to point to the conclusion that some mental mechanisms and dispositions that are associated with full-blown psychosis may also be present in varying degrees in everyone and may confer tremendous advantages to flow, creativity, and what makes life meaningful.

© Scott Barry Kaufman


Nelson, B., & Rawlings, D. (2010). Relating schizotypy and personality to the phenomenology of creativity. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 36, 388-399.

After the Show: The Many Faces of the Creative Performer – The Creativity Post

The Jackson 5

The Jackson 5

By Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.

Author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined; Co-founder of The Creativity Post.


The many complexities and contradictions of the creative performer.

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.” ― Pearl S. Buck

“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” – Walt Whitman

A_The_Jackson_5_in_1973-300x300Recounting his recording sessions with the young Michael Jackson, famed record producer Quincy Jones remembers that “Michael was so shy, he’d sit down and sing behind the couch with his back to me while I sat with my hands over my eyes — and the lights off.” What a contrast from his onstage extroverted, charismatic and bold performances!

In the article “The confusing legacy of Michael Jackson,” Todd Leopold discusses the perplexing combination of seemingly contradictory traits displayed by Michael Jackson. In explaining his many sides, Jackson biographer J. Randy Taraborelli essentially throws his hands up in the air in exasperation as he tries to make sense of the apparent contradictions:

I think that when you’re talking about Michael Jackson and you try to analyze him, it’s like analyzing electricity, you know? It exists, but you don’t have a clue as to how it works.

Creativity researchers aren’t so confused. They have long-ago accepted the fact that creative people are complex. Almost by definition, creativity is complex. Creative thinking is influenced by many traits, behaviors, and sociocultural factors that come together in one person. It would be surprising if all of these factors didn’t sometimes, or even most of the time, appear to contradict one another.

In the 60s, after extensively interviewing some of the most creative people of his generation, legendary creativity researcher Frank X. Barron came to the following conclusion:

“Thus the creative genius may be at once naïve and knowledgeable, being at home equally to primitive symbolism and to rigorous logic. He is both more primitive and more cultured, more destructive and more constructive, occasionally crazier and yet adamantly saner, than the average person.”

After interviewing 91 eminent people, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi came to thesame conclusion decades later: “creative people show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an “individual,” each of them is a “multitude.””

To me, some of the most fascinating contrasts are those found in creativeperformers — those who are constantly on stage and in the public eye. Out of Csikszentmihaly’s list of 10 complex personality traits of creative people, I think these three are the most relevant to creative performers:

These three seeming contradictions — energy/rest, extroversion/introversion, and openness/sensitivity — are not separate phenomena but together seem to form the core of the creative performer’s personality. These characteristics are also linked to what Elaine Aron refers to as a highly sensitive personality (HSP). HSP’s make up 15-20 percent of the general population and tend to be more aware than others of subtleties, get more easily overwhelmed when things get too intense or there is too much sensory input, are easily affected by other’s moods, and are deeply moved by arts and music. Some of the most creative people have very high levels of sensitivity and have found ways to accommodate their sensitivity.

Take Yoshira Nakamatsu, perhaps one of the most creative (if not also a bit nutty) inventors of all time. He invented many ‘calm rooms’ around his house to minimize as much as possible any potential sensory input that might interfere with his creative process. My favorite calm room is his bathroom, where his toilet shuts out every noise and every magnetic and electronic field! According to Dr. Nakamatsu, “Such a calm room erases all noise from your brain, you can concentrate and think.” Dr. Nakamatsu also has a “dynamic room” in his old house, where music, patterns and textures stimulate the brain. According to Nakamatsu, this room is conducive to inventing, allowing the creator to mix ideas in his or her head. The genius of Dr. Nakamatsu may come in large part, from his ability to flexibly switch between extreme quiet and extreme stimulation (read here for more on the good Dr.’s genius).

heavymetalWhat about extremely extroverted performers? Do they also fit the profile? Psychologist Jennifer O. Grimes went to three major summer metal rock tours, including one of the largest heavy metal/hard rock festivals in the world — “Ozzfest.” Talk about extroverted performers! Grimes interviewed 21 musicians associated with signed touring acts in an isolated room backstage for approximately 20-25 minutes.

Behind the curtain, how did these hard rock musicians describe themselves? Below are some of Jennifer’s impressions (for a fuller summary, see here).


Introversion / Extroversion

All participants showed interest in physical activities but also reported requiring “alone time.”
Most participants reported “overthinking everything” and being hypercritical, exhibiting critical attention to detail and a careful method of planning everything.
Those familiar only with the subjects’ stage persona believed the subjects to be friendly, bold and approachable. The acquaintances who were able to respond to Grimes’ interview questionnaire reported that the subjects were not approachable or appeared to hold a condescending view of others until one became better acquainted with the individual. Those closer to the musicians thought they were warm, friendly, calm and pleasant.

The introverts in her sample seemed adept at using introversion and extroversion in various facades to manipulate their appearances to the various circles of friends, acquaintances and others. As Grimes puts it, musicians were adept at “juggling multiple faces” (I really like this way of phrasing it!).

Many of Grimes’s participants felt as though they were often misunderstood or perceived in a negative light, sometimes due to shyness.

Openness / Sensitivity

The musicians in Grimes’s sample reported being in the zone onstage, and being able to “tune out” external stimuli unrelated to the task. At the same time, Grimes found a lot of the musicians reported a heightened sensitivity to their surroundings and their experience of sound, lighting, scents, etc.

All of the musicians reported some degree of unusual perceptions, especially relating to high sensory sensitivity.

All participants described music as a means of self-expression, relating to others, and finding fulfillment. Subjects reported that listening to or creating music allowed them to recharge when overstimulated.

Musicians reported that any amount of inhibition hindered creative production. Apparently, this was a conscious decision: artists explained how they learned to work with the process so that they did not unintentionally inhibit their creativity by blocking their own flow.

Many of Grimes’s subjects showed an appreciation of fantasy; daydreaming was commonly reported. Drummers reported less abnormal perceptual experiences, lower levels of sensitivity, and lower anxiety than the rest of the instrumentalists.

Those writing melodic aspects reported more abnormal sensory experiences, a greater sense of feeling overwhelmed, greater sensitivity, higher anxiety, emotional fluctuation, and pronounced attention to organization, rigid practices, beliefs, and adherence to habits and schedules. When these qualities were most pronounced, they appeared to be associated with the most productive periods of creative writing. Folks who did music composition reported that when they feel overwhelmed, they withdraw and write, an experience described as both cathartic and impossible without the abnormal feelings and/or perceptions. Grimes concludes that it is her hope that the stereotyping about introversion will cease to pervade introversion literature without unbiased support for those claims.

So that’s heavy metal rockers. What about stand-up comedians, another group of creative performers that often seem quite Extraverted onstage?

Psychologist Gil Greengross and colleagues compared the personality traits of 31 professional stand-up comedians and 9 amateur comedians against the personality traits of 10 humor writers and 400 college students. They found that the comedians (both professional and amateur) scored on average the lowest in self-reported extroversion, even lower than comedy writers. According to the researchers,

“The public perceives comedians as ostentatious and flashy. Their persona on stage is often mistakenly seen interchangeably with their real personality, and the jokes they tell about their lives are considered by many to have a grain of truth in them. However, the results of this study suggest that the opposite is true. Perhaps comedians use their performance to disguise who they are in their daily life. Comedians may portray someone they want to be, or perhaps their act is a way to defy the constraints imposed on their everyday events and interactions with others.”

While most of the results I presented in this article came from self-report, I think the evidence is suggestive that for a large majority of performers, in some of the most extraverted forms of performance, there is this great ability to juggle multiple faces and a need for downtime and reflection.

Coming into psychology from a musical background, I can certainly identify with the unique cognitive experiences of the performer/artist. But even putting on my scientist face, I’ve come across a lot of research (including some of my own) showing just how intertwined and prevalent sensitivity, openness to experience, flow, abnormal perceptual experiences, and personality contradictions really are in creative people, especially artists (see Schizotypy, Flow, and the Artist’s Experience).

Hopefully by combining methods, such as self-reported experiences, peer reports, and more objective tests, we can shed more light on the many complexities and seeming contradictions found in creative people of many different flavors, and by so doing counter common black-and-white stereotypes about people in general.

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

For more on the development of intelligence and creativity, see “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined“.