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Overexcitabilities

Michael M. Piechowski
Northland College

I. The Concept of Overexcitability and Its Origin be innate tendencies that appear in five forms: psycho-
II. Expressions of Overexcitability in Creative People motor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational, and emo-
III. Conclusion tional. The difference in intensity, sensitivity, and acuity
is not only greater than normal, it is also a difference in
the very quality of experiencing. As enhanced forms
of experiencing, overexcitabilities contribute in impor-
Developmental Potential A concept describing innate endow- tant ways to the individual’s psychological development.
ment composed of abilities and talents, intelligence, and over- Consequently, the strength of overexcitabilities is taken,
excitabilities. in part, as a measure of developmental potential.
Overexcitability An innate tendency to respond with height-
ened intensity and sensitivity to intellectual, emotional, and
other stimuli. Also called psychic overexcitability.
Theory of Positive Disintegration A theory of emotional devel- I. THE CONCEPT OF
opment from lower to a higher level of psychological func- OVEREXCITABILITY
tioning, proposed by K. Dabrowski. The core idea of the AND ITS ORIGIN
theory is that structures of a lower level must be dismantled
before structures of a higher level can be erected. The theory Gifted, talented, and creative people are known to be
emphasizes the role of inner conØict, moral sensitivity, com- energetic, enthusiastic, intensely absorbed in their pur-
passion, and self-judgment in the personal growth of creative suits, endowed with vivid imagination, and strongly
people and spiritual seekers. sensual, but they are also known to be emotionally vul-
nerable. Some are known to be aggressive, others to be
morally sensitive. They tend to react strongly to aes-
thetic, intellectual, emotional, sexual, and other stim-
OVEREXCITABILITY (OE) is a translation of the Polish uli. Because of this intensity, creative people may not
term nadpobudliwość which means the capacity to be always be easy to be with. They are considered devi-
superstimulated. The term overexcitability, rather than ant– too different to fit the norm. The characteristic of
just excitability, was chosen to convey the idea that the enhanced experiencing is believed to be the property
stimulation is well beyond the common and average in of the nervous systems of creative people. Therefore,
intensity and duration. Overexcitabilities are assumed to overexcitabilities feed, enrich, empower, and amplify

Encyclopedia of Creativity Copyright 䉷 1999 by Academic Press


VOLUME 2 325 All rights of reproduction in any form reserved.
326 Overexcitabilities

talent. In most cases they appear stronger with higher self-torture. The stronger the tension, the stronger the
intelligence, and they are strongest in creative people. need to release it. Dabrowski saw that people prone to
Overexcitabilities are found across all talent do- self-mutilation were more susceptible to being excited,
mains. Writers, composers, dancers, actors, scientists, tense, thrown off balance by their overstimulation and
inventors, as well as civic and spiritual leaders, all have inner turmoil. In other words, they were high strung
them. In artists, they are often as strong in adulthood and subject to nervousness. He also noticed that they
as in childhood. Do they aid or impede development? tended to have a rich inner life. He studied clinical
In the first entry of her Journal of Solitude, May Sarton cases of gifted and talented youngsters, and biographies
wrote, ``I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted of such creators as Michelangelo, Dostoevski, Tolstoy,
by the reverberations after even the simplest conversa- and Nietzsche. In each case he pointed to clashes of
tion. But the deep collision is and has been with my opposing tendencies that created enormous inner ten-
unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self.’’ Such sion resulting in various forms of self-torment. The
great intensity of feeling as well as an inner struggle ability to sustain great inner conØicts was to Dabrowski
and self-judgment used to be viewed as mental dis- a sign of inner strength because rather than injuring
turbance. Now they are understood to be essential others the person injured himself. He observed that an
to inner growth. The sculptor Malvina Hoffman said, emotional crisis and mental suffering, so great that it
``Language is a clumsy medium to express the pound- could bring on a psychotic episode, at times resulted
ing surge of intense feeling. . . . Music could drive my in personality integration at a higher level. Personality
blood and suffuse my entire being.’’ development toward a higher level through suffering
We can find similar examples among scientists. and inner conØict is the leading idea of his theory.
Louis Pasteur was deeply emotional, though he did not Dabrowski emphasized the disequilibrating, disor-
show it outwardly. He suffered such acute homesick- ganizing, and disintegrating action of overexcitability
ness when he went to study in Paris that his father had on many areas of psychological functioning. When this
to bring him back home. A somewhat different manner kind of disintegration fosters emotional growth, it is
of enhanced experiencing was Norbert Wiener’s vivid positive, hence the name theory of positive disintegration.
memory of smells and tastes from his childhood trip to Overexcitability was defined by the following charac-
Vienna: ``The smell of the alcohol lamp over which my teristics: (a) the reaction exceeds the stimulus, (b) the
parents prepared my sister’s warm evening meals, the reaction lasts much longer than average, (c) the reac-
smell of rich European chocolate with whipped cream, tion is often not related to the stimulus, and (d) the
the smell of the hotel and the restaurant and café– all emotional experience is promptly relayed to the sym-
these are still sharp in my nostrils.’’ These examples pathetic nervous system (accelerated heartbeat, blush-
show a rich and amplified range of experiencing. Let ing, trembling, perspiring, headaches).
us now look at how it came to be explored. As Dabrowski kept developing his theory, the five
In 1937 the Polish psychologist and psychiatrist overexcitabilities became components of the concept
Kazimierz Dabrowski published a study titled ``Psycho- of developmental potential. This concept includes over-
logical Bases of Self-Mutilation.’’ Examining biogra- excitabilities, talents, and intelligence. It is the poten-
phies of creators and clinical cases, Dabrowski iden- tial for emotional development to a higher level such
tified factors that were predisposing toward physical as, for example, self-actualization. In fact, Maslow and
self-mutilation and psychological self-torment. These Dabrowski began a friendship that was cut short by
predisposing factors are different forms of what he Maslow’s premature death in 1970. The overexcitabili-
called psychic overexcitability. This was the germ of his ties are ways of experiencing with great intensity, alive-
theory of positive disintegration. ness, vividness, depth, and richness in the sensory, in-
Dabrowski studied how a person responds to stimu- tellectual, imaginative, and emotional realms. They are
lation and stress. Emotional tension requires an out- also the means of processing emotional tension.
let. When it becomes unbearable it can lead to self- Each form of overexcitability can be looked on as a
inØiction of pain, the pain then brings relief. The pain mode of being in the world or as a dimension of mental
may be sought in physical self-injury or in emotional functioning. Thus, the psychomotor mode is one of move-
Overexcitabilities 327
ment, restlessness, action, excess of energy seeking an Today we can say that individual differences, such as
outlet; the sensual mode loves surface contact, sensory heightened versus average excitability, lie in the speed
delight, comfort and hedonism; the intellectual mode of information processing, in the developmental ex-
favors analysis, logic, questioning, the search for truth; periences that stimulate the brain to grow denser and
the imaginational mode celebrates vivid dreams, fanta- more efficient neural connections, in the extensiveness
sies, images and metaphors, personifications, strong of cognitive and other networks, and in the excitability
visualization of experience; the emotional mode cen- and rate of emotional processing by the brain. With
ters on attachments and affectional bonds with others, current advances in tapping the activity of the living
empathy, the despair of loneliness, the joy of love, brain, the overexcitabilities could be tested directly by
the enigma of existence and human responsibility. The comparing the responses of individuals who score high
overexcitabilities are modes of personal experience and on a given overexcitability with those who score low.
personal action. Each mode can be viewed as a channel
through which information Øows in the form of sensa-
tions, feelings, experiences, images, ideas, hopes, and II. EXPRESSIONS
desires. The five dimensions are like color filters or OF OVEREXCITABILITY
interactive channels through which the world is per- IN CREATIVE PEOPLE
ceived and felt.
The response is specific to the most dominant form, The following illustrative examples come from bi-
or forms, of overexcitability in a person. For instance, ographies and from overexcitablity questionnaires ob-
persons characterized by emotional overexcitability tained from writers, poets, musicians, fine artists,
when asked what triggers in them the feeling of being film makers, and dancers-choreographers. Responses
incredibly happy may answer that the love of family marked (p) are from material collected by Jane Piirto
and friends moves them to tears or that the feeling of for her study of creative writers.
oneness with all creation makes them ecstatic. If the
answer to the same question is the speed and excite-
A. Psychomotor Overexcitability
ment of water-skiing, playing a hard game of racquet
ball, or racing on a motorcycle to feel its roar, it indi- Psychomotor overexcitability describes the surplus
cates psychomotor overexcitability. In the latter case, of energy characteristic of gifted and creative people as
although the question was asked in the emotional di- well as the funneling of emotional tension into psycho-
mension (``What makes you feel incredibly happy?’’), motor forms of expression. As shown in Table I, the
the response came in the psychomotor dimension. heightened energy of a person can find expression
These channels can be wide open, narrow, or oper- in speaking rapidly, outward gestures of excitement,
ating at bare minimum. They are assumed to be part of intense athletic activity, physical work, pressure for
a person’s constitution and to be more or less indepen- action, and strong competitiveness. Emotional ten-
dent of each other. If more than one of these channels sion can be funneled into actions that help discharge
have wide apertures, then the abundance and diversity it through compulsive talking and chattering, engag-
of feeling, thought, imagery, and sensation will inevi- ing in impulsive actions, displaying nervous habits,
tably lead to dissonance, conØict, and tension. Con- working compulsively, or acting out destructively. The
sequently, experience becomes multidimensional, en- higher energy level of creative people is readily noticed,
riching, expanding, and intensifying the individual’s though it is not universal.
emotional development. At times the inner tensions Some creators were highly spirited and energetic
and conØicts may be overwhelming. when they were young but were not so in their adult
The five overexcitabilities, plus specific creative gifts, years. Chopin did not have a strong constitution to
talents, and abilities constitute the original equipment begin with and it was later weakened by tuberculosis.
with which a child enters life. Parental, peer, school, Once she returned from boarding school, Emily Dick-
historical, economic, and cultural forces all inØuence inson gradually became so agoraphobic and fearful of
how this original equipment will fare. strangers that she never left her family house. Richard
328 Overexcitabilities

TABLE I
Forms and Expressions of Overexcitability

Psychomotor Imaginational
Surplus of energy Free play of the imagination
Rapid speech, marked excitation, intense physical activity Frequent use of image and metaphor, facility for invention
(e.g., fast games and sports), pressure for action, (e.g., orga- and fantasy, facility for detailed visualization, poetic and dra-
nizing), marked competitiveness matic perception, animistic and magical thinking
Psychomotor expression of emotional tension Capacity for living in a world of fantasy
Compulsive talking and chattering, impulsive actions, ner- Predilection for magic and fairy tales, creation of private
vous habits (tics, nail biting), workaholism, acting out worlds, imaginary companions; dramatization
Spontaneous imagery as an expression of emotional tension
Animistic imagery, mixing truth and fiction, elaborate
Sensual dreams, illusions
Enhanced sensory and aesthetic pleasure Low tolerance of boredom
Seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, hearing, and sex; delight
in beautiful objects, sounds of words, music, form, color, Emotional
balance Feelings and emotions intensified
Sensual expression of emotional tension Positive feelings, negative feelings, extremes of emotion,
Overeating, sexual overindulgence, buying sprees, wanting complex emotions and feelings, identification with others’
to be in the limelight feelings, awareness of a whole range of feelings
Strong somatic expressions
Tense stomach, sinking heart, blushing, Øushing, pounding
Intellectual heart, sweaty palms
Intensified activity of the mind Strong affective expressions
Thirst for knowledge, curiosity, concentration, capacity for Inhibition (timidity, shyness); enthusiasm, ecstasy, euphoria,
sustained intellectual effort, avid reading; keen observation, pride; strong affective memory; shame; feelings of unreality,
detailed visual recall, detailed planning fears and anxieties, feelings of guilt, concern with death, de-
Penchant for probing questions and problem solving pressive and suicidal moods
Search for truth and understanding; forming new concepts; Capacity for strong attachments, deep relationships
tenacity in problem solving Strong emotional ties and attachments to persons, living
Reflective thought things, places; attachments to animals; difficulty adjusting to
Thinking about thinking, love of theory and analysis, pre- new environments; compassion, responsiveness to others,
occupation with logic, moral thinking, introspection (but sensitivity in relationships; loneliness
without self-judgment), conceptual and intuitive integration; Well-differentiated feelings toward self
independence of thought (sometimes very critical) Inner dialogue and self-judgment

Wagner, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Sergei Rachmani- inquisitiveness. One day, he attached wires to two large
noff, and Thomas Alva Edison are a few examples of cats and then attempted to rub them vigorously to pro-
the many creators who as children were impetuous, duce static electricity. The scratches and claw marks
hard-to-control bundles of energy. Today highly spir- he got were deep. Rachmaninoff’s favorite sport was
ited gifted children are often mistakenly labeled as to jump on and off horse-driven streetcars in motion,
hyperactive or having attention deficit /hyperactivity even in winter on icy pavement.
disorder (ADHD). In response to the question ``How do you act when
Saint-Exupéry as a boy was wild and fearless, fond you get excited?’’ a poet wrote, ``I wave my hands,
of violent games in which he tyrannized over others. stumble over my tongue & yak at hyperspeed until
Edison was always getting into scrapes because of his my lips are ready to Øy off’’ [p]. A dancer said, ``I feel
Overexcitabilities 329
the most energy in the a.m. Or during or immediately but she rarely moves one to tears.’’ Chopin was mak-
following dancing. I try to `stay with it,’ ride the wave ing a distinction between a purely sensual delight and
as long as it lasts.’’ The question ``What kind of physi- being deeply moved emotionally. Charles Darwin de-
cal activity gives you the most satisfaction?’’ evoked rived such intense pleasure from listening to music that
this response from a young writer/actress, ``Swimming his ``backbone would sometimes shiver.’’
but most of all water skiing. It’s the most exhilarating The vividness of sensory experience and sensory
sport I’ve done– the feeling of movement, water and imagination in highly creative people raises an interest-
wind against my body all at once.’’ These examples ing possibility of testing it. Recent reports show that
illustrate high energy that finds ways to be discharged the brain lights up differently when real memories
physically. are recalled than when imaginary memories are re-
called. In real memories the sensory areas light up, in
imagined memories they do not. Because people who
B. Sensual Overexcitability
have high overexcitability report experiencing their
In sensual overexcitability the pleasures and delights visualizations as real, one would expect their sensory
offered through seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, areas to light up during their fantasizing. [See IMAGERY;
hearing, and sex, as well as multisensory experiences, IMAGINATION.]
become enhanced. Persons so endowed immerse them-
selves in the delight of beautiful things, sounds of na-
C. Intellectual Overexcitability
ture, sounds of words and music; they note the form,
color, and balance in anything around them. Specific Intellectual overexcitability encompasses the intensi-
aversions to certain tastes, smells, or touch, and the fied activity of the mind as thirst for knowledge, curi-
like are also common. Hedonism is often sensual. osity, capacity for concentration and sustained intellec-
Sensual pleasure tends to be relaxing and temporarily tual effort, avid reading and precision in observation,
satisfying. recall, and careful planning. Questioning is the hall-
In contrast, when emotional tension is diverted to mark of intellectual overexcitability as the person is
the sensual channel it may become excess in eating, driven by the search for understanding and truth.
smoking, shopping, sex, and a constant desire to be Perceiving patterns and relationships leads to naming
admired. For example, Tchaikovsky began smoking for them; thus, new concepts are born. Solving prob-
the pleasure it gave him but soon found that it pacified lems, finding it difficult to let go of a problem, and
his high-strung nerves– sensual pleasure combined finding new ones to solve is typical. Another trait is
with a reduction of emotional tension. reØective thought, exemplified by watching one’s own
Painters smell paint, feel the texture of their material, thought processes, delighting in analysis and theoreti-
feel the brush strokes in a painting, just as potters feel cal thought, preoccupation with logic, moral thinking,
the clay being molded in their hands, with heightened introspection, and seeking integration of concepts and
sensibility in their whole physical being. Many poets intuitions. People strong in intellectual overexcitability
are acutely sensitive to the sound of words and their are independent thinkers and often highly critical of
rhythms, the touch of paper, and the look of print the thoughts of others. [See METACOGNITION.]
fonts. Musicians are supremely aware of timbres of in- Although one would think that intellectual over-
struments and the distinct color and timbres of voices, excitability is the prerogative of scientists and philoso-
sounds of nature, and of their everyday surroundings phers, it is also characteristic of artists and creative
(e.g., John Cage). people in all domains. The more original an artist’s
Chopin’s description of Henrietta Sontag’s singing– work was judged by experts, the more facility for ask-
one of the greatest sopranos of the early 19th cen- ing questions the artist had. Habitual or relentless in-
tury– is extremely sensual: ``You feel as if she was quisitiveness– pondering and puzzling over things–
blowing at you perfumes of the freshest Øowers and is one of the distinct characteristics of intellectual
caressing you with the delicious pleasures of her voice, overexcitability. The Allport-Vernon-Lindzey Study of
330 Overexcitabilities

Values similarly defines theoretical value as an interest to convert experience into imagery depends on an ex-
in and pursuit of truth, a desire to gain knowledge, sys- ceptional ability to see analogies, which are facilitated
tematize it, and bring order to it. by unusual associations to emerge as metaphors. When
A statement from Darwin illustrates curiosity, con- Edison was 10 years old he weighed himself on a scale
centration, and the thrill of learning a logical principle. and said to his mother, ``I am a bushel of wheat now,
Recalling his youth, Darwin said: I weigh 80 pounds.’’ Imagination makes such analogies
possible. The impulse to explore new possibilities and
I had strong and diversified tastes, much zeal for what- to change what is given into something else is ever
ever interested me, and a keen pleasure in understand- present; it was delightfully illustrated in the film Ama-
ing any complex subject or thing. I was taught Euclid deus. After hearing a court composer’s piece, Mozart
by a private tutor, and I distinctly remember the in- goes to the keyboard to play it and to show how to
tense satisfaction which the clear geometrical proofs make it more interesting. All it took was imagination.
gave me. I remember with equal distinctness, the de- [See ANALOGIES; METAPHORS.]
light which my uncle (the father of Francis Galton) Imaginational overexcitability can be also noticed
gave me by explaining the principle of the vernier of a in a person’s facility for visualizing, making elaborate
barometer. dreams and fantasies, perceiving life experiences poeti-
cally and dramatically, and in animistic and magical
In his autobiography, Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and thinking. Animistic thinking involves endowing inani-
Youth, Norbert Wiener stressed that he was motivated mate objects with personality, character, and a will of
by the ideal of service to truth rather than service their own. Magical thinking rests on the conviction that
to humanity even though his father exerted a strong to think something is as good as making it happen.
moral inØuence on him to serve humanity. Wiener also The private rituals and formulas to ensure that every-
described how when working on a problem ``the unre- thing works out all right are examples of such thinking.
solved ideas were a positive torture to me until I had The capacity for living in a world of fantasy often goes
finally written them down and got them out of my sys- together with the need to spend certain amount of time
tem.’’ The excerpts from Darwin and Wiener show the daydreaming, reading fairy tales and stories, or even
crucial involvement of emotion in learning and solving creating private imaginary worlds. Having several
problems. imaginary companions in childhood, and for some
These examples demonstrate several aspects of inten- even into adulthood, is a telling sign.
sified activity of the mind that lead to ever more prob- Emotional tension is easily diverted into the theater
ing questions and search for understanding, shared of imagination where feelings and emotions find their
by scientists and artists alike though their questions form. It is helpful for understanding one’s emotional
and their methods of inquiry may be quite different. life to be able to give an image to what is felt. Words
They also show a strong emotional component in the are inadequate and limited, but an image carries the
process. energy and felt quality that reveals the meaning of an
experience. For people with overexcitability of imagi-
nation, spontaneous imagery is as natural as breathing;
dreams are elaborate, illusions and mixing truth and
D. Imaginational Overexcitability
fiction are possible. This does not mean that at other
The role of imagination in creativity has been well times such persons are not capable of sorting fantasy
documented in many sources. As a personal character- from reality. On the contrary, for them the difference is
istic, the concept of imaginational overexcitability is quite enhanced. The boundary may blur when intense
broader. It looks at the creator’s underlying predispo- emotions take over in a rush of vivid images. Frank
sition, manifested in childhood, to engage in the free Lloyd Wright once imagined that his mother was going
play of the imagination, to fantasize and daydream, but to give a party for him. He started telling his friends in
also to come up with unusual associations. To be able detail what would be served and how special this oc-
Overexcitabilities 331
casion was going to be. So they came, all dressed up. what they should or should not feel rather than accept-
Wright’s mother was surprised but knowing her son ing what they do feel. When this happens, children
she improvised a party. Because he imagined it, he ac- with high overexcitability are intensely miserable and
tually believed the party was going to take place. confused. Consequently, we have a much higher fre-
Richard Wagner was so fascinated by Beethoven and quency in emotional individuals of a tendency toward
Shakespeare that he created in his mind a vivid image depression, suicidal thoughts, feeling of being out of
of each one: ``I used to meet them both in ecstatic place, and not belonging. Feelings of profound alien-
dreams, saw them, and spoke to them; on awakening ation, even suicide, are often the result.
I was bathed in tears.’’ His imagination was so graphic Highly emotional individuals make strong attach-
that whenever he thought of ghosts he was terrified. ments to people, living things, and places. When they
When as a boy he visited his relatives who lived in a have to move they experience great difficulties adjust-
big house, he was lodged in a stately guest room. The ing to new environments. To pull up so many roots and
old portraits of young ladies ``in hooped petticoats and strike them in new soil takes up much energy; it often
white powdered hair’’ seemed to him to be ghosts. takes a long time, or it fails to happen. This imparts
Alone in the room he was possessed by terror because compassion toward others, sympathy for the loneliness
they seemed to come to life. Every night of his stay he of others. Friendships are strong and enduring. Being
was drenched with perspiration, a victim to his fright- emotional often means to judge oneself, to carry on
ening visions. an inner dialogue and self-judgment on how well one
Creative people do not tolerate boredom well. They does toward others, how well one carries out one’s re-
do not enjoy routine and unimaginative exercises. As a sponsibilities toward others. May Sarton, quoted at the
boy Rachmaninoff took up improvisation because the beginning, wrote of the deep collision with her ``unre-
music he had to study was too dull for him. He said generate, tormenting, and tormented self.’’
to his naive listeners that he was playing Chopin or Intensity, passion, and sensitivity to nuances of feel-
Mendelssohn and no one realized he was playing his ing are usually associated with creative people in the
own music. arts but not in science or mathematics. Herbert Simon,
These are just a few examples of the free play of a Nobel Prize winner in economics, said in an inter-
imagination, the capacity for visualization and for fan- view that there is no emotion in his creative process–
tasy, animistic and magical thinking, and the ability only hard cognitive work and hard problem solving.
to conjure up novel images and unusual analogies, re- This, however, is not true of other scientists. Simon
sponses typical of imaginational overexcitability. took for granted his wife’s contribution to his emo-
tional well-being and overlooked the obvious fact that
the intense interest driving him is an intense emotion.
E. Emotional Overexcitability
Louis Pasteur and Norbert Wiener, to cite just two
Emotional overexcitability is easily recognized. A examples, were deeply emotional and highly sensitive
person’s feelings and emotions are frequently at a higher people. Darwin and Einstein also had a strongly emo-
pitch. The person has a keen awareness and sensitivity tional aspect to their personalities. The spectrum of
to nuances of feeling both in oneself and in others. Be- emotions and feelings is immense and exceedingly in-
cause the vehicle for emotion is the body, there are dis- tricate. The portion of the emotional spectrum that is
tinctly recognizable psychosomatic signs of overexcit- characteristic of each creator is probably unique.
ability, such as blushing, getting Øushed with color, In his autobiography Darwin made frequent obser-
perspiring, trembling, feeling tension in different parts vations on his friendships and their importance to him
of the body, feeling hot or cold, and so on. Positive as personal relationships in contrast to scientific ones.
as well as negative feelings are experienced with great In describing people he always noted the emotional
intensity, openly by extroverts and inwardly by intro- impact each person had on him. Recalling his child-
verts. We live in a culture in which being emotional is hood, Darwin confessed to an act of cruelty. He beat a
criticized and tampered with. Children are often told puppy and it troubled his conscience for a long time.
332 Overexcitabilities

``The exact spot where the crime was committed’’ was trapping birds– a wounded bird was too much for
engraved in his mind. It was all the more troubling to him. The contact with his family and friends was vital
him because he loved dogs and they often preferred to the young Pasteur. Away from home he constantly
him to their masters. Darwin also recalled that he was begged for more frequent and longer letters. Pasteur
more affectionate in his youth when he had many was also deeply religious and it pained him to see in
friends among the schoolboys whom he said he loved the practice of religion so much controversy, intoler-
dearly. When as a student he attended the clinical ward ance, and lack of peace and love.
of the hospital some of the cases distressed him and left Wiener’s account of his boyhood and youth is very
vivid imprints on his mind. Two surgeries he attended emotional. He remembered his first sweetheart in
were performed without anesthesia– it was not yet kindergarten– charmed by her voice he loved to stay
introduced– he could not bear to stay and see them close to her. He described his fears of the dark, injury,
completed. violence, and death and his sensitivity to the injustice
Einstein said about himself, ``I am not much with and cruelty suffered by others. He was quite shaken
people, and I’m not a family man. I want my peace.’’ In when at the age of 13 he was told that his mother
personal relationships he kept a distance. He concen- had a second child who died at birth. It shattered his
trated all his energy on solving the riddle of how God sense of security to realize that his own family was
created the universe. Yet he was also animated by deep not immune to tragedy. Lacking religious upbringing
emotions and sensibilities. He was close to his mother, he learned the story of Christ’s crucifixion from his
to his sister Maja, and to his uncle Cäsar Koch. He Catholic friends. The image of Christ’s wounds and the
was deeply honest and abhorred German militarism so crown of thorns filled him with pain.
strongly that from the age of 15 he sought to give up Despite his extraordinary abilities and being radi-
his German citizenship; a year later he became state- cally accelerated in school–Wiener graduated from
less; eventually he became a Swiss citizen. He cher- Tufts College at the age of 141⁄2 , spent a year at Cornell,
ished those few with whom he could discuss physics. and earned his doctorate at Harvard before he turned
Einstein said that he suffered nervous conØicts ``at the 19– his self-confidence was undercut by his father’s
very beginning when the Special Theory of Relativity demands for perfection. Even worse, his father stated
began to germinate’’ in him. Similarly Max Planck de- publicly in print that all the boy’s accomplishments
scribed the 6 years of his own seminal work on the were due to the training he gave him and none to his
equilibrium between radiation and matter as ``a process abilities. Wiener was devastated; he felt that all his suc-
of despair’’ because the solution was eluding him. cesses were his father’s but the failures were his own.
As a boy Einstein had a great sensitivity to beauty He dreaded graduation, which forced him to leave the
and a deep religiosity. About the age of 12 he came to protection of childhood and face adult responsibility
the conclusion that many Bible stories could not pos- for himself. He seriously doubted he could succeed.
sibly be true. Religion lost its authority. This led him ``My achievement of independence during the year at
to suspect that all institutional authority was intention- Cornell had been incalculably retarded by the confused
ally deceiving the young through lies. The resulting mass of feelings of resentment, despair, and rejection
emotional crisis made him distrust every kind of au- which had followed early in the year upon discovery of
thority. Einstein loved music and studied the violin but my Jewishness.’’ The feeling of oneness with nature, or
was making little progress with teachers who stressed even with the universe, is also frequently expressed by
mechanical practicing and accuracy without feeling. creative people.
When he was 13 he fell in love with Mozart and his Studies comparing artists and scientists in regard to
violin sonatas: ``The attempts to reproduce, to some emotionality have shown that as a group scientists tend
extent, their artistic content and their singular grace to be less emotional. But this comparison overlooks
compelled me to improve my technique . . . I believe, at least two things. First, the comparison is made of
on the whole, that love is a better teacher than sense adults. The examples cited make it clear that as chil-
of duty.’’ dren scientists often are emotional and sensitive but
Pasteur as a boy liked to fish but abstained from later the involvement in research restricts their emo-
Overexcitabilities 333
tional range– recall Darwin saying that he was more emotions are engaged as they almost always are. Psy-
affectionate as a boy. Second, there is a distinct differ- chomotor overexcitability imparts a high level of energy
ence in the artists’ and the scientists’ material. Scien- and drive. Sensual overexcitability contributes a richer
tists study phenomena outside themselves, which are and more vivid sensory experience frequently in con-
analyzed, experimented with, and explained in objec- junction with emotional overexcitability. Intellectual
tive terms. But the process of working out solutions intensity generates relentless questioning and search-
to problems is often described as despair or torture. ing for truth. Enhanced imagination brings the power
Whether the scientist approaches this work with pas- to envisage undreamed of possibilities, to create new
sion or not does not enter the final picture. That’s how realities. Emotional overexcitability endows the creator
science is usually viewed and portrayed. Objectivity is with greater intensity and complexity of feeling in all
in fact the outcome of the collective enterprise of sci- dimensions.
ence in which replication of results and confirmation Scientists have greater emotional intensity than it
of theories are carried out by different people check- is generally believed. We know today that intellectual
ing on each other’s work. In art the very material is processes divorced from emotion are ineffectual. Da-
human subjectivity, the life of feeling to which an artist masio in his Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the
gives expression. Artists work with the complexities of Human Brain described cases in which damage in a
human emotion and feeling. Before experience can be very small frontal area of the brain disrupted the con-
portrayed and expressed it has to be felt, whether in nection between reasoning and feeling. The patient
reality or in imagination. was perfectly rational on all psychological tests and yet
In some cases emotional overexcitability is expressed could not bring his reasoning to any practical conclu-
negatively. For instance, Wagner was so self-centered sion. Without feeling he was unable to decide which
that he believed that to be his friend a man had to be of two rational alternatives was the better one. It is
totally dedicated to him. Picasso, emotionally equally therefore not surprising that creative scientists show
intense, was not far behind, being destructive in most clear evidence of emotional overexcitability, even those
of his intimate relationships. Somerset Maugham was who would deny the role of emotion in their cognitive
often cruel to the boys procured for him. To under- processes.
stand what tips the balance toward a negative expres- The problems of science are difficult. The gaps and
sion of overexcitability would require a close exami- the contradictions in our knowledge are never obvious,
nation of the person’s emotional development. they have to be discovered first before they are solved.
The problems of art are also difficult. The artist has
to discover what experiences or humanly significant
III. CONCLUSION trends need to be expressed. The artist may be aware of
something pushing for expression yet may need years
The overexcitabilities, according to Dabrowski’s the- to express it just as a scientist working on a basic prob-
ory, are fundamental attributes of a creator’s makeup. lem may go through years of despair and torment be-
Without them a talent lacks richness and power. The fore the solution appears. Work of this order requires
model of developmental potential offers a way of ex- as a starting point extraordinary equipment: intelli-
amining the range of expressions and categories of any gence, talent, and overexcitabilities.
given overexcitability in a given creator as the palette
of each overexcitability changes its spectrum from in-
dividual to individual. Advances in brain research pre- Bibliography
sent the possibility of examining the nature of over-
excitabilities directly. Dabrowski, K. (1937). Psychological bases of self-mutilation.
Genetic Psychology Monographs, 19, 1–104.
As a property of the nervous system, each over-
Dabrowski, K. (1967). Personality-shaping through positive disin-
excitability contributes significantly to the creative pro- tegration. Boston: Little, Brown.
cess by not only heightening the experience but by Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the
making it also more complex, especially when the human brain. New York: Grosset / Putnam.
334 Overexcitabilities

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