Fear and the creative state

Welp, I’ve finished up the book “Fear Itself” and even returned it the library. So if you’d like to read it and happen to be near the downtown San Diego library, it should be being returned to the shelves as we speak.

One part of the book discussed the relationship between anxiety and the creative state. The book argues that fear sharpens your mind because you’re in a situation where you need all your wits about you. Anxiety tends to be a weaker form of fear, but spread out over a longer time. Some people find their creative and intuitive abilities strengthened during periods of anxiety. The book describes the experience of a man named Abraham Pais, a Jewish physicist who, during World War II, hid from the Nazis in much the same way Anne Frank did. While he was hiding, he kept working and enjoyed a creative surge. To quote Pais himself:

“I would get up, exercise, have breakfast, then sit down at my little worktable and, presto, thoughts emerged totally unforced, by themselves.”

This resonates with me. As most people know, about a year and half ago I was struggling with a severe case of repetitive strain about my forearms as well as dizziness and lethargy caused by what was ultimately diagnosed as utricle disease. It was obviously a time of great anxiety. But during that time, I wrote what I feel to be, if not my best, at least my most sophisticated music. And I was able to write it almost effortlessly — I remember having the distinct sense of, “where is this coming from?” I also wrote some of my better writing, and, again, what stands out about it to me is the sophistication — the depth of the ideas. I was able to connect thoughts in ways I was not able to before*.

And, on the flipside, during the past year, during which I’ve been generally getting better and most of the anxiety has dissipated, I’ve written very little music. And, as I write this novel, I often find myself struggling for words. I’m clearly not as “sharp” as I was during that period of worry.

Many people will wait till the last minute to finish a term paper or work assignment, because they feel that the pressure of the deadline forces them to work better.

And you can see this on a national level as well. As the book notes, during World War II and the Cold War, the United States made numerous technological advances — atomic weaponry being the obvious one. Pressure caused our collective brains to go into hyperdrive.

*Let’s explore this concept on the level of brain activity. We can, I think, directly relate the process of “connecting” thoughts to the process of neurons, or networks of neurons, passing signals (“action potentials” as neuroscientists would call them) to other neurons or neural networks. If worry increases the firing of neurons, you would subsequently be able to connect more thoughts to each other. It’s not quite that simple, of course. Panic and fears in the primitive part of the brain can inhibit thought.

3 Responses to “Fear and the creative state”


  1. John Saleeby

    That’s true, Fear is a creative stimulus. I wrote my legendary Interesting Motherfuckers article about Harvey Korman while trapped in a country farmhouse in Pennsylvania surrounded by an army of human flesh eating Zombies. Next week I’m going to the home a Texas Family which cuts up people with chainsaws to make barbeque to start work on my article for the next issue. Wish me luck!

  2. Larwence

    I fear Andy Dick.

  3. John Saleeby

    That fear is justified.

    Today’s “Fuck you!” goes out to all those guys who still think it’s funny to do shitty impressions of Bob Dylan singing -

    “Once apon a tiiiiiime threw the bums a diiiiiime in your priiiiiiime, didn’t yoooouu?”

    Fuck you! I hate you!