By Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.
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
Recounting 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 CNN.com 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).
What 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“.