How The Science Of Eccentricity Has Moved Forward

by Dr. David Weeks

As my research showed, eccentrics are as diverse as are many other categories of people. Most of the scientific research that has been done since my book was published has looked at people who are presumed or known to exhibit eccentric behavior. In 1999, a 2 volume reference book, The Encyclopedia of Creativity, included an article on eccentricity by me and my research associate Kate Ward.

encyclopedia_creativitySince then, other researchers have been led to look at the connections between eccentricity and creativity. These studies have tended to examine people who fulfill strict criteria, particularly for (non-disordered) schizotypal personality. The main criteria used for this personality classification comprised:

  • magical thinking (superstitiousness, beliefs in clairvoyance, telepathy and a “sixth sense”);
  • odd communication styles (circumstantial, digressive, over-talkative, and over-elaborated);
  • suspiciousness/mildly paranoid thinking;
  • unusual perceptual experiences;
  • and preferences for solitary activities.

This sub-group, according to my research, amounted to no more than about a fifth of all the eccentrics studied. Most eccentrics, at least 80% of them, were not schizotypal. Schizotypal personality is presumed to be a milder version of the (untreatable) condition of schizotypal personality disorder.

ASPERGER SYNDROME

The other, numerically much smaller sub-group showing some eccentric behaviors are highly functioning, more intelligent people with Asperger syndrome, which is thought to be more common in males (and normal masculine males are said to be somewhat like Asperger’s in some respects). Asperger’s syndrome is thought to be on the higher functioning end of a presumed autistic spectrum. There were perishingly few people in my research who were diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

In point of fact, creativity and eccentricity do go hand in hand, and not only in eccentrics with schizotypal personality, though seen much less often in Asperger’s syndrome, which seems to be different in quality and is more of a repetitive, “copying what’s out there” kind. The researchers who study people who are in the schizotypal  category believe that both their creativity and eccentricity may be a result of how their brains filter, or fail to filter, incoming information from internal and external sources.

LATENT INHIBITION

Reduced functioning of one of these cognitive filters is called latent inhibition. Reduced latent inhibition apparently increases the amount of unfiltered stimuli reaching conscious awareness, and this is associated with more unusual “offbeat” thoughts and hallucinatory experiences. Cognitive disinhibition is about the schizotypal individuals’ failure to ignore information that is irrelevant to their current purposive goals. This inability does not apply, or has not been shown to apply, to all the many other (estimated 80%) non-schizotypal eccentric people. Brain imaging techniques and electroencephalographic (EEG) studies support the theory that highly creative people tend to experience more cognitive disinhibition than do less creative control groups, though again the pertinent researchers may only have been examining schizotypal people.

However, Colin Martindale at the University of Maine and his research colleagues also found that highly creative people tend to produce more brain waves in the alpha frequency range (8 to 12 hertz, or cycles per second) during apparent creative tasks than do less creative people. Martindale and his group interpreted alpha power as a marker of decreased cortical arousal and de-focussed attention, and suggested that creative people were allowing greater amounts of information into their conscious awareness during presumed creative work, particularly in the pre-insight preparatory stages. This is akin to what can happen in deep states of relaxation, daydreaming, and some forms of trained meditation.

In my studies, I should emphasize, in both the UK, USA, and Canada, somewhere between 65% and 85% of eccentric people were creative, but they were of disparate types of people and disparate types of creative thinking. Most of these individuals were not schizotypal, but had all kinds of personalities, both introvert and extravert, both stable and mildly psychosis-like in their thinking (though very few were actively psychotic at interview, only 1 out of 130 in the U. K. sample).