This excerpt is from the book Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire.

Recalling his recording sessions with the young Michael Jackson, producer Quincy Jones said that “Michael was so shy, he’d sit down and sing behind the couch with his back to me while I sat with my hands over my eyes — and the lights off.”

From watching his electrifying performances onstage, most people would never guess that Michael Jackson was a deeply shy and sensitive person. From the time he was a young boy, the King of Pop exuded energy, strength, and charisma onstage, while his personal life was characterized by crippling sensitivity, loneliness, and struggle. As Jackson heartbreakingly said, “It hurts to be me.”

Jackson’s biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli all but gave up on trying to make sense of the many paradoxes that defined Jackson’s personality. “I think that when you’re talking about Michael Jackson and you try to analyze him, it’s like analyzing electricity, you know?” he wrote. “It exists, but you don’t have a clue as to how it works.”

The only thing that seemed to really make sense to Jackson himself was music. The singer opened up in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, saying, “I feel I was chosen as an instrument to give music and love and harmony to the world.” By channeling his sensitivity and suffering into his work, Jackson found a sense of meaning and a way to escape from the loneliness and isolation that often overwhelmed him.

The paradoxes of the performer

Jackson embodies a personality contradiction seen in many performers: They are both incredibly “out there” and open, and also highly sensitive. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified openness and sensitivity as oppositional personality elements that not only coexist in creative performers, but form the core of their personalities. This paradox helps explain how performers can be bold and charismatic on the one hand and emotionally fragile on the other.

“Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment,” Csikszentmihalyi wrote. “Being alone at the forefront of a discipline also leaves you exposed and vulnerable.”

The fact that many seemingly extraverted performers are also highly sensitive people can also be found in the complex personalities of metal rock performers. Psychologist Jennifer O. Grimes went to three major metal rock tours, including Ozzfest, one of the largest (and wildest) in the world, where she conducted thorough interviews with 21 musicians from the various bands in quiet backstage rooms. What she found from these conversations was that most of the musicians exhibited the contradiction of openness and sensitivity (as well as introversion and extraversion) in their personalities.

Onstage, the musicians appear to be the prototype of extraversion: bold, loud, and wild. But backstage, Grimes saw a different side of their personalities. They required alone time to recharge and solitary activities like reading, playing their instruments, and writing to “rebalance.” The musicians she spoke to reported that when they were onstage, they were “in the zone” and able to “tune out” external stimuli unrelated to their performance. Many of them reported a heightened sensitivity to their surroundings and an intensified experience of sensory input like sound, lighting, and scents. They were often prone to daydreaming and had an appreciation of fantasy, and they said that listening to or creating music allowed them to recharge when they felt overstimulated.

All of the musicians also said that they experienced unusual perceptions—meaning that they had perceptually rich experiences that reflected a high level of sensory sensitivity, such as “hearing the confluence of a multitude of sounds and tonal qualities that make up a single bell chime.”

Taking in the world with heightened sensitivity can be both a blessing and a curse, and it often requires spending more time alone. Grimes writes, “Sometimes, individuals seek to ‘block out’ overwhelming stimuli, and sometimes greater intensity and focus are desired. One subject reported that his hypersensitivity to his surroundings is so powerful that he finds it effortful to associate with his environment.”

The subjects all described music as a way to express themselves, connect with others, and find personal fulfillment. They also tended to agree that creating art was an important way for them to bridge their inner selves and their outer worlds—pretty sensitive-sounding comments coming from hard rock musicians!

Unusual depth of feeling

Grimes’s findings suggest that behind the external appearance of any highly creative person are layers of depth, complexity, and contradictions. Not only performers but creative people of all types tend to be acutely sensitive, and conversely, sensitive people are often quite creative.

Here’s another example: Mark Salzman, a friend of the great cellist Yo‑Yo Ma, describes Ma as one of the most joyful people he’s met. But he noted that the musician isn’t always cheerful—he also experiences negative emotions as deeply as he does positive ones. “Yo‑Yo is so responsive to what is going on around him … If you put him in a room with people who are grieving, he will be as sad as anyone,” Salzman said.

This depth of feeling almost certainly explains how we feel when we hear him perform. Many audience members at Ma’s concerts are left, as Salzman puts it, “excited to the core.” He writes, “You find yourself paying more attention to the person you’re with, more aware of the rain on the windshield on the ride home. You feel more grateful just to be alive.”

It’s easy to see how one trait feeds into the other: To both the highly creative and the highly sensitive mind, there’s simply more to observe, take in, feel, and process from their environment. To highly sensitive people, as Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Pearl S. Buck suggested, the world may appear to be more colorful, dramatic, tragic, and beautiful. Sensitive people often pick up on the little things in the environment that others miss, see patterns where others see randomness, and find meaning and metaphor in the minutiae of everyday life. It’s no wonder this type of personality would be driven to creative expression. If we think of creativity as “connecting the dots” in some way, then sensitive people experience a world in which there are both more dots and more opportunities for connection.

Are you an HSP? 

Research led by psychologist Elaine Aron has identified sensitivity as a fundamental dimension of human personality, finding that highly sensitive people tend to process more sensory input and to pick up on more of what’s going on in both their internal and external environment.

An estimated 15 to 20 percent of people are considered to be, in Aron’s terms, highly sensitive, but among artists and creative thinkers, that percentage is likely much higher. High levels of sensitivity are correlated with not only creativity but also overlapping traits such as spirituality, intuition, mystical experiences, and connection to art and nature.

Aron conducted interviews with people who self-identified as “highly sensitive.” The Arons put up advertisements looking for people who were “introverted” or easily overwhelmed by things like noisy places or evocative or shocking entertainment, selecting an equal number of men and women across a wide range of ages and occupations. They then interviewed each person for three to four hours on a range of personal topics, from their childhood and personal history to current attitudes and life problems.

Many respondents expressed a connection to the arts and nature as well as an unusual sympathy for the helpless (animals, “victims of injustice”). Many also expressed their spirituality (“seeing God in everything,” going on long meditation retreats) as playing an important role in their lives.

Later, psychologists identified two main factors on the HSP Scale: “temperamental sensitivity” — relating to one’s level of sensitivity to sensory input — and a “rich inner life.”

If you’re interested in getting a sense of where you stand on these two factors, here they are:

Temperamental Sensitivity

1. Are you bothered by intense stimuli, like loud noises or chaotic scenes?

2. Do you become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around you?

3. Are you made uncomfortable by loud noises?

4. Are you easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by?

5. Are you easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input?

6. Do you find it unpleasant to have a lot going on at once?

7. Do you startle easily?

8. Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?

9. Does your nervous system sometimes feel so frazzled that you just have to get off by yourself?

10. Do changes in your life shake you up?

11. Do you find yourself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or anyplace where you can have some privacy and relief from stimulation?

12. Do you make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?

13. Are you annoyed when people try to get you to do too many things at once?

14. When you must compete or be observed while performing a task, do you become so nervous or shaky that you do much worse than you would otherwise?

15. Do you make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows?

16. Do other people’s moods affect you?

17. Are you particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine?

18. Does being very hungry create a strong reaction in you, disrupting your concentration or mood?

19. Do you tend to be more sensitive to pain?

Rich Inner Life

20. Do you notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art?

21. Are you deeply moved by the arts or music?

22. Do you seem to be aware of subtleties in your environment?

23. Do you have a rich, complex inner life?

24. When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment do you tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating?)

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