People have long associated creativity with craziness. Look at any famous creative professional, and however genius their creations may be, they tend to range from “quirky” to “clearly mentally ill by any objective measure.” Until now it’s been a purely anecdotal association, but new research from deCODE genetics and King’s College London has changed that: There indeed appears to be a positive correlation between the genes that lead to creativity and those associated with mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
“For most psychiatric disorders little is known about the underlying biological pathways that lead to illness. An idea that has gained credibility is that these disorders reflect extremes of the normal spectrum of human behaviour, rather than a distinct psychiatric illness,” said Robert Power, first author from the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP) Centre at the IoPPN. “By knowing which healthy behaviours, such as creativity, share their biology with psychiatric illnesses we gain a better understanding of the thought processes that lead a person to become ill and how the brain might be going wrong.”
Creativity isn’t an easy thing to quantify. However, it’s loosely defined using novel, unique approaches that differ from established conventions when engaging in cognitive processes. For the purpose of the study, the researchers looked at data from 86,292 Icelandic individuals, and defined creative people as those belonging to the national artistic societies of actors, dancers, musicians, visual artists and writers. This is obviously incomplete, as it fails to capture similar individuals who decline to join such societies, but it’s consistent all the same.
Across the board, genetic risk factors for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder were higher for creative individuals – on average, their scores placed them somewhere between “normal” adults and those who were actually diagnosed with the disorders.
“Our findings suggest that creative people may have a genetic predisposition towards thinking differently which, when combined with other harmful biological or environmental factors, could lead to mental illness,” said Power.
Though scientists have been aware that genetic factors influence mental illness, the research gives credence to the idea that creativity has a genetic component as well – and they’re likely related. Creativity is often associated with a whole host of contributing factors, from environmental elements to socioeconomic class. Instead, it may be that the same genes that predispose people to insanity are the same as those that push people to creative brilliance.