A new study by researchers at the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet supports the hypothesis that there is a link between mental illness and creativity. More specifically, they showed that highly creative people – with high scores in divergent thinking – had a lower density of D2 receptors in their thalamus than less creative people. Lower density of D2 receptors is a consistent finding in patients with schizophrenia. The authors suggest that lower density of D2 receptors may be “one factor that facilitates performance on divergent thinking tasks.”, as it could possibly:
“lower thalamic gating thresholds, resulting in decreased filtering and autoregulation of information flow and, increase excitation of cortical regions through decreased inhibition of prefrontal pyramidal neurons. The decreased prefrontal signal-to-noise ratio may place networks of cortical neurons in a more labile state, allowing them to more easily switch between representations and process multiple stimuli across a wider association range. This state, which we hereforth will refer to as the “creative bias”, could benefit performance on tasks that involve continuous generation and (re-)combination of mental representations and switching between mind-sets
However, decreased signal-to-noise ratio is also associated with some drawbacks (i.e. cognitive disorganization, poor performance on tasks of selective attention), some of which are linked to psychopathology. As de Manzano and colleagues conclude:
“..thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box.”
de Manzano, Örjan, Cervenka, Simon, Karabanov, Anke, Farde, Lars, & Ullén, Fredrik (2010). Thinking Outside a Less Intact Box: Thalamic Dopamine D2 Receptor Densities Are Negatively Related to Psychometric Creativity in Healthy Individuals PLoS ONE DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0010670
The idea that creativity is strongly associated with mental illness was popular since Aristotle’s era. Many recent studies seem to support this claim.
Here are a few findings that suggest that the link between art and mental illness really exists:
- 1. Researchers (Jamison, 1989; Janka, 2004) have found high levels of psychopathology, especially, depression and bipolar disorder (I, II & cyclothymia) in writers, poets, visual artists and composers, compared to the rates in the general population. Furthermore, artistic creatives and psychiatric patients share a tendency to unusual ideas and experiences. Moreover, different domains of creativity require different cognitive profiles, with poetry and art associated with divergent thinking, schizophrenia and affective disorder (Nettle, 2005).
- Family studies have produced evidence of creative interests and aptitudes in close relatives of psychiatric patients, including biological relatives separated by adoption (Andreasen, 1987). This supports the idea that there is an inherited personality or cognitive trait that has both creativity and mental illness in its range of effects.
- Research on psychiatric patients, usually with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, suggest that they have enhanced performance relative to control participants on tasks that require divergent thinking (Hasenfus & Magaro, 1976; Jamison, 1989). Divergent thinking is strongly connected to creativity.
- A new theory based on genetics suggest that gene mutations that increase a person’s risk of developing mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar syndrome have been preserved, even preferred, during human evolution, due to their relationship with creativity. More specifically, a specific gene, neuregulin 1 is linked to a slightly increased risk of schizophrenia. Mutations to this gene were found to be linked with psychosis, poor memory and sensitive to criticism. About 50 per cent of healthy Europeans have one copy of this mutation, while 15 per cent possess two copies. People with two copies of the neuregulin 1 mutation tended to score notably higher on these measures of creativity, compared with other volunteers with one or no copy of the mutation. A significant increase in creativity relative to participants with no copy of this gene was found to people possessing only one copy of the mutation. However, the mutation of neuregulin 1 can explain only a small part of the differences in creativity levels (Kéri, 2009). Other researchers (Nettle & Clegg, 2005) “blame” the artists for the persistence of schizophrenia, as they have schizotypal personality traits and are more successful in finding sexual partners compared to non artistic individuals. However, this idea isn’t that popular among artists.
- Symptoms of certain disorders like hypomania (mild mania) favour creativity by giving a boost to the imagination and energy. On the other hand, full blown symptoms or more serious disorders have the opposite effect and inhibit creativity.
Artistic tendencies linked to ‘schizophrenia gene – New Scientist article
A beautiful mind – BBC News
Manic-Depressive Illness and Creativity by K.R. Jamison – Scientific American
Creativity andmental health by J. Schlesinger – The British Journal of Psychiatry
Connecting Depression and Artistry by R.A. Friedman (MD) – The New York Times
Biological Basis For Creativity Linked To Mental Illness – Science Daily