The Canary in the Coalmine Theory of the Arts

Monday, November 21st, 2016

Kurt Vonnegut presented his canary in the coalmine theory of the arts in Physicist, Purge Thyself:

This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.

Adam Perkins uses this idea to illustrate the personality differences between visionaries and implementers:

The ‘Big Five’ dimensions of personality are extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness to experience. Studies show that openness to experience captures individual differences in the capacity to imagine new concepts and things — i.e., to be creative.

So far, so good: this finding tallies nicely with biographical information showing that geniuses tend to be unusually adventurous, curious and open-minded. For example, instead of spending his family’s wealth on wine, women and song as was customary for young English gentlemen of means in the early 19th century, Charles Darwin spent it on five years sailing round the world in a cramped and smelly boat called HMS Beagle, even though his voyage had no specific purpose and he suffered from chronic seasickness. But readers may also suspect that openness to experience is not the only personality dimension that is important when it comes to being one of Vonnegut’s canaries because their super-sensitivity is particularly acute for detecting danger. And threat-sensitivity is not captured by openness to experience but instead by the personality dimension of neuroticism.

Epidemiological evidence fits with the idea of visionary ability being linked to high scores on neuroticism because it shows that creative professionals have a higher than average risk of psychiatric illness and of suicide. Neurotic tendencies also seem to be commonplace in the life stories of geniuses. But these observations could just be an artefact of the pressure of constantly trying to come up with new ideas — it doesn’t mean that high scores on neuroticism necessarily aid creativity. Moreover, given the amount of hard graft that it takes to succeed as a visionary, whether Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Vincent van Gogh, Jane Austen or Bruce Springsteen, it seems likely that a person weighed down with negative thoughts and feelings would have a worse chance of making a difference to the world than a calm, cheerful, happy-go-lucky individual who bounces out of bed every morning feeling refreshed and energetic.

So how could it be that high scores on neuroticism aid creativity? One theory is that neuroticism stems from individual differences in patterns of self-generated thought (SGT) which, in turn, depend on variation in the functioning of a brain system known as the default mode network (DMN). The DMN activates when we are not engaged with the world around us, such as when we are daydreaming. This theory was created by Jonny Smallwood, Danilo Arnone, Dean Mobbs and me in response to the finding that some people have less positive thoughts when engaged in daydreaming.

Moreover, it turns out that these individuals — akin to high scorers on neuroticism — display more activity in a part of the brain that controls conscious perception of threat. The key insight is that this pattern of threat-related brain activity was observed while participants were daydreaming in a threat-free situation so these individuals can be viewed as possessing an especially active imagination when it comes to threats. This raises the possibility that the creative advantage associated with high scores on neuroticism stems from highly neurotic individuals having a problem-focussed style of daydreaming, which might help them find solutions to those problems, compared to people whose attitude to problems is “out of sight, out of mind” (i.e., low scorers on neuroticism).


It could even be said that high scorers on neuroticism are more conscious of reality than the rest of the population. When combined with other important qualities such as adventurousness (i.e., high scores on openness to experience) and plenty of neural horsepower (i.e., high IQ) it is possible that this higher state of consciousness emerges as visionary characteristics that gives the bearer a better ability to see new ways of developing music, painting and so on.

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