The other day I was wondering about the relationship between OCD and creativity. People with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) have thoughts that they can’t get out of their heads. But creativity is the opposite of obsessing over a single idea, at least the way I experience it.
For me, creativity is a process by which I rapidly FORGET the thought that is currently in my head so a new one will fill the space. Your brain isn’t good at thinking of nothing, so when you eject your current thought, another rushes in to take its place. If you flush-and-replace enough thoughts in a row, you have experienced creativity. And if any of those new thoughts made your body respond with a laugh, a sigh, or chills, or anything else physical – you might have created art. I think of creativity as a system of cycling through ideas until one of them “moves” me, literally. If an idea doesn’t create some sort of physical change in my body, I rapidly reject it and move to the next thought.
The reason I am curious about OCD and it’s relationship to creativity is that I wonder if OCD sufferers could sometimes hack their brains by using creativity to crowd out the OCD. Your brain isn’t good at having more than one thought at the same time. And it also isn’t good at flushing your current thoughts when you have OCD. So instead of trying to actively lose an obsessive thought – which is nearly impossible for someone with OCD – perhaps it would be more helpful to try to solve a creative problem that automatically activates the imagination circuitry of your brain. If I’m right, trying to solve a creative problem would be more effective as a distraction for OCD sufferers than any other kind of mental distraction.
I Googled “OCD and creativity” to see what the science says. One study suggests that OCD sufferers are far more likely to “rely heavily on their imagination” compared to non-OCD people. The researchers concluded that this correlation might mean that having an extra-strong imagination is a necessary condition for OCD. And they might be right.
But consider another explanation for the correlation between imagination and OCD. Could it be that OCD sufferers use their imaginations more often than others because doing so is an escape from the OCD? And could it be that continued use of the imagination makes you better at it?
Humans can change the physical composition of their brains by choosing what they spend their time doing. Musicians strengthen one part of the brain and athletes strengthen another. I have to assume that continuous use of your visual imagination also changes the brain over time. And the more you practice something, the better you get. So if OCD sufferers have been self-hacking their brains by using their imaginations to avoid compulsive thoughts, you would expect them to have more vivid imaginations than the public because of all the practice.
For the first 30 years or so of my life I had obsessive thoughts about childhood traumas. Whenever my brain was under-occupied, it drifted to those horrors. When the bad thoughts came, my only defense was to crowd them out with stronger and better thoughts. So I used my imagination to create little movies in my head that were so engaging that my mind had no choice but to focus on them.
Is it a coincidence that my imagination is so strong now that I make my living using it? I don’t know. It feels as if I was born with a good imagination, but it also feels as if I exercised it more than other people. Lots and lots and lots more. And it also feels to me that my powers of imagination have gotten stronger every day of my life because of practice.
You should never take health advice from cartoonists. This is no exception. But I would be interested to hear from any OCD sufferers as to whether they use imagination to escape obsessive thoughts. And if not, why not?
My startup’s app, WhenHub, is solving an irritating problem for divorced parents that share custody of the kids. The last person in the world that a divorced person wants to communicate with is an ex. The WhenHub app eliminates all of the angry “Where are you???” texts and phone calls that inevitably happen when one is late dropping off or picking up the kids. And you know one of the parents is always late. The geostreaming automatically times-out whenever you want so exes can’t track each other after the kid exchange.