Science as Art

Science as Art

Adam Perkins
Adam Perkins
9 min read

I earn my living by designing and running experiments that probe the biological basis of personality, so it might seem that I have more of a claim to the label of scientist than people with other professions. I’m not so sure: beneath its veneer of precision, science is a messy, wrong-turn-ridden journey of discovery that is little different from an artist’s struggle to capture, for example, the beauty of the Provençal countryside. Just like the artist never quite portrays the beauty of that landscape, the scientist never quite arrives at the truth as to how nature works — but, like the artist, he or she gets closer over time.

Since each of our lives is a messy, wrong-turn-ridden journey of discovery, are we all scientists/artists? In Daniel Dennett’s book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking he wrote:

Every organism, whether a bacterium or a member of Homo sapiens, has a set of things in the world that matter to it and which it (therefore) needs to discriminate and anticipate as best it can.

So yes in that all of us are trying to navigate towards a particular vision — in Dennett’s terms, the set of things we need to anticipate. No in that that our visions vary in their degree of novelty and so the less innovative our vision, the less of a scientist/artist we are.

If we pursue a conventional vision, such as having nice friends, a nice house, nice holidays, a nice job and so on, that’s fine but it means that we can’t at the same time be pursuing a new vision of reality. And that’s a good thing as, for example, airliners would be falling out of the sky all over the place if instead of being calm, controlled, confident implementers, airline pilots were distractible, thin-skinned, tempestuous, questioning visionaries.

The notion that the human population contains visionaries and implementers is widely used in today’s human resources industry, but also featured in Kurt Vonnegut’s essay entitled ‘Physicist, Purge Thyself’ that was published on 22nd June 1969 by Chicago Tribune Magazine. In that essay Vonnegut stated:

I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was with the possible exception of interior decoration. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. 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.

Vonnegut is dead so we can’t ask him how broad his definition of a “canary” was but I suspect that he wouldn’t be picky about job titles and would include anyone who has exceptionally wide doors of perception — i.e., who is a visionary. For example, Winston Churchill earned his living as a soldier, lecturer, historian, newspaper reporter and politician. Yet Churchill perceived the danger of Adolf Hitler years before the British establishment realised that Hitler was anything more than a big-talking clown with a penchant for silly hats and funny moustaches. So in the sense that he had a magnified perception of the threat presented by Hitler, Churchill qualifies as one of Vonnegut’s super-sensitive canary-artist types.

Building on Vonnegut’s idea it seems reasonable to accept that there are indeed people amongst us, such as Churchill, who are more perceptive than average. These are the visionaries — Vonnegut’s canaries — who perceive threats earlier than those of us with more ordinary stuff between our ears. But how does this anecdotal evidence stack up in empirical terms? Modern personality researchers believe that human personality is adequately captured by five dimensions. This does not mean that other models of personality are invalid or that there are only five dimensions of personality, it simply means that for most practical purposes five dimensions — the so-called ‘Big Five’ — provide a useful and valid approximation of human personality. 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).

Our theory was published in September 2015 by Trends in Cognitive Sciences and ruffled a few feathers amongst researchers who believe neuroticism is wholly damaging in its effects, as can be seen from the resulting academic spat: here and here. However, regardless of academic point scoring, our theory does suffer from a limitation in that not all creativity involves solving problems – some of it is to do with creating a new vision of beauty, as in the domain of music or painting. This suggests that to provide an explanation for this non-threat-related facet of visionary genius we need to supplement the SGT theory of neuroticism with research on consciousness.

The work of Jeffrey Gray and Philip Corr is important here, since they portray the Behavioural Inhibition System (BIS; part of the neural substrate of anxiety) as an error-checking system that is continually comparing the actual state of the world against the predicted state. For example, Professor Corr wrote in his 2011 paper: “When tried-and-tested strategies do not work, the full toolkit of cognitive analysis is brought to bear on the problem, and anxiety-related outputs are experienced.” Thus, the bigger the mismatch detected by the BIS, the more the anxiety we experience. So it could be that low scorers on neuroticism have less sensitive mismatch detection and so spend more time operating in a calm, “everything’s fine, folks” type of manner, and so do well in implementer type jobs like piloting an airliner. High scorers on neuroticism have highly sensitive mismatch detection and thus spend less time in a calm state and more time with their cognitive analysis toolkit whirring away — in everyday parlance, their minds are more active in a glass half empty way.

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.

All of this discussion leaves unanswered the question of how we decide if something represents a breakthrough — after all, there isn’t an international court of arbitration for creativity. My suggestion is that we don’t decide — we feel. This is illustrated by James Watson’s comment on page 153 of ‘The Double Helix’, in which he summed up the initial reaction of others to the DNA double helix: the structure was too pretty not to be true. Likewise when Thomas Huxley’s first reaction to Darwin’s concept of evolution by natural selection was: How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!”.

Even though these breakthroughs are pigeonholed as scientific rather than artistic, they are eliciting a gut reaction of acceptance that I suspect is not much different to that of teenagers in the early 1960s when they first heard The Beatles singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, or Generation Xers when they first heard the Nirvana song “Smells like Teen Spirit”. Both these musical revolutions tick a lot of boxes in terms of pointy-headed, intellectual, post-hoc analyses and have no doubt spawned scores of PhDs. But The Beatles and Nirvana made their impact in the first place because they presented a beautiful new vision of what music should sound like — a vision that spoke to the feelings first, with the mind only catching up later. Apart from the relative lack of cool hairstyles, I suspect that scientific revolutions are no different.

Finally, as a bit of fun, it is interesting to consider one’s own position on the visionary-implementer scale. As an aid to this, here is an online personality questionnaire that provides a detailed personality profile for free: (study code 92556379). In my case, I am as neurotic as a wet and beaten cat so if high neuroticism is part of being a visionary then I tick that box. However my score on openness to experience is not much above average and I also fall short in my IQ score which is about 20 points below the traditional minimum for major creative achievement (140) and far below the likes of John Lennon, who apparently scored 165 on an IQ test as a teenager.

These deficiencies probably explain the minor scale of my creative achievements. For example, on the arts front, when I was struggling to get started as a personality researcher I supplemented my income by playing bass in a band named Mower that I started with Nick Boon and Mat Motte. We ended up playing some big venues and a song that I wrote in response to being dumped for the umpteenth time, The Chemistry Song, got airplay on BBC Radio 1.

On the science front my book The Welfare Trait was published 11 months ago. It draws upon the results of more than a hundred studies to warn that welfare policies which increase the number of children born into disadvantaged households risk proliferating dysfunctional, employment-resistant personality characteristics, due to the damaging effect on personality development of exposure to childhood disadvantage. Despite initial reluctance, The Welfare Trait ended up receiving a lot of coverage in the national press due to a mixture of intense Twitter attention, the threat of violent protest at a lecture I was due to give at the LSE in February 2016 and Toby Young’s Spectator article on the censorship of academic work that clashes with politically correct narratives.

The media coverage of The Welfare Trait caused the intelligentsia to choke on their Chai Lattes as they jumped to the conclusion that my book was an attempt to demonise unemployed people and destroy the welfare state. Ironically, if they had bothered to read it, they would have found the opposite — The Welfare Trait actually provides a blueprint for using discoveries from personality research to create a more sustainable welfare state. Undeterred by the facts, the self-appointed guardians of permitted thought have since engaged in a smear campaign that is long on innuendo but short on counterevidence, even going to the trouble of creating a website to provide a dedicated platform for people to rant about me and The Welfare Trait. So when it comes to creativity, maybe there isn’t much of a divide between art and science after all.


Adam Perkins is a Lecturer in the Neurobiology of Personality at Kings College London. Follow him on Twitter @AdamPerkinsPhD

Science / Tech

Adam Perkins

Adam Perkins is a Lecturer in the Neurobiology of Personality at Kings College London.