Inside the Neurotic Mind

If you want to better understand why neurotic people like myself behave the way they do — or if you have neurosis and have a similar curiosity about your own tortuous mental processes — than this following excerpt from The Atlantic is spot on. It is based on a scientific paper published in  the journal Cell: Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

The paper’s thesis is that neurotic people—tense, panicky types who are consumed by gloomy feelings—get that way because they have an overabundance of negative, so-called “self-generated” thoughts. Rather than overreacting to bad experiences, the minds of neurotic people create their own threats.

“It seems like these people have spontaneous brain activity that’s firing off, there’s a trickle-down effect, and it feeds into their more basic threat-processing systems” he said. “They’ll be sitting in an armchair and their heart rate is 200 and they’re panicking and sweating”.

These negative self-generated thoughts aren’t completely unrealistic, Perkins notes. Neurotic people don’t fear the earth will be invaded by aliens tomorrow. They think their wife will cheat on them on a business trip, even if she’s the most loyal and loving woman in the world.

Strangely, these melancholy thoughts also have an upside: They help in planning, delaying gratification, and, some studies show, with creativity. The more you keep your life’s big problems “constantly before you”, as Newton did, the likelier it is you’ll resolve them.

Still, “self-generated thoughts, when focused on the past, can be pretty depressing”, Perkins said. The constant gloom takes its toll. Neurotic people tend not to be very adept at high-pressure jobs, such as flying fighter planes or defusing bombs. Neuroticism strongly correlates with a risk of psychiatric illness, and it’s at least partly genetic, so people can pass it on to their kids.

I can relate with all of this, including the fact that this behavior seems to run in my family. As long as I can remember I have always been a nervous wreck, albeit to varying degrees depending on the circumstances; thankfully, it is not as if every waking moment of my life is one of constant worry and stress. Rather, such thoughts come and go without much sense; while obvious scenarios like taking a test or speaking before a crowd sometimes trigger neurosis, other times it emerges during the most passive and mundane activities (as the article observed).

Fortunately, over the last few years I have come to understand my neurotic mind better, and to implement steps to mitigate its subsequent effects, like anxiety and depression: mindfulness meditation, therapeutic activities, better sleeping habits, exercise, and a healthier diet. Most crucially, having a large and supportive social network of family, friends, acquaintances, and a graciously understanding girlfriend has given me far more confidence and comfort than even my neurosis could ever undermine.

The Perks of Shyness: Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS)

Never heard of it? Well if you’re the shy, introverted type, you have most likely experienced it.

It’s a personality trait characterized by sensitivity to any kind of stimuli. Basically, people with SPS have an above-average ability to notice subtleties in their environment: they’re better at reading people, or noticing minute details in their surrounds. Studies have found that SPS and other closely related personality traits – such as behavioral inhibition and introversion – are correlated with greater awareness of subtle stimuli (including social and emotional cues that most people otherwise don’t notice), giving more attention to things, and greater sensory reaction times. Indeed, MRI tests have revealed that the brains belonging to people with SPS showed far greater than normal activity in high-order visual processing.

And while you may feel glum about being so shy, individuals with SPS have typically reported having richer, more complex inner lives than others – which makes sense, given that shy people, by definition, spend much of their time looking inward and reflecting. In essence, the shy person is substituting their social life with their own rich inner life: philosophizing, reading, exploring, and enriching themselves in their own way (which isn’t to say that being extroverted is bad, as it’s merely another approach to enriching one’s life).

So take this into consideration the next time you’re lamenting your shyness, as I often have (although I have my extroverted moments as well). Obviously, this information may be little consolation to those of you are particularly tormented by the social ramification of shyness, but it doesn’t hurt to keep it in mind. You may not realize it, but you’re social inhibitions are something to be proud of, especially if you make the most of them. 

Can you relate?


The “end of history illusion” describes an almost universal phenomenon among human beings, in which we have a tendency to see the present time as the stopping point for any change of in lives. Once we reach a certain age, we essentially assume that from then on we’ll remain the same. It’s a little difficult to describe given that the “present” tense of time slides as we age. But the New York Times has a great article on it:

When we remember our past selves, they seem quite different. We know how much our personalities and tastes have changed over the years. But when we look ahead, somehow we expect ourselves to stay the same, a team of psychologists said Thursday, describing research they conducted of people’s self-perceptions.

They called this phenomenon the “end of history illusion,” in which people tend to “underestimate how much they will change in the future.” According to their research, which involved more than 19,000 people ages 18 to 68, the illusion persists from teenage years into retirement.

“Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin,” said one of the authors, Daniel T. Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard. “What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”

Trying to explain this tendency yields even more interesting considerations. After all, if people acknowledge how much they’ve changed over the years, why can’t they seem to realize that such change will continue?

People seemed to be much better at recalling their former selves than at imagining how much they would change in the future.

Why? Dr. Gilbert and his collaborators, Jordi Quoidbach of Harvard and Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia, had a few theories, starting with the well-documented tendency of people to overestimate their own wonderfulness.

“Believing that we just reached the peak of our personal evolution makes us feel good,” Dr. Quoidbach said. “The ‘I wish that I knew then what I know now’ experience might give us a sense of satisfaction and meaning, whereas realizing how transient our preferences and values are might lead us to doubt every decision and generate anxiety.”

Or maybe the explanation has more to do with mental energy: predicting the future requires more work than simply recalling the past. “People may confuse the difficulty of imagining personal change with the unlikelihood of change itself,” the authors wrote in Science.

But it’s false comfort, as this mentality does have its caveats:

The phenomenon does have its downsides, the authors said. For instance, people make decisions in their youth — about getting a tattoo, say, or a choice of spouse — that they sometimes come to regret.

I think it comes down to the nature of the human mind. Our brains are limited in their capacity to look into the future. Our senses and perceptions are shaped by the here and the now, not by a hypothetical future that is far and away – and therefore difficult to grasp, let alone feel concerned about. Try as we might, we’re just too cognitively limited.