London, U.K. – It’s something that has been long observed over the course of history: Those who are most apt to be creative geniuses are often also afflicted with some form mental illness. These tendencies were noted as far back as the philosophers of ancient Greece, and can be seen clearly in renowned artists, such as Vincent Van Gogh.
A new study, published in Nature Neuroscience, claims that the genetic roots for creativity and psychiatric disorders potentially have a common cause. The research, which took place at King’s College London, posits that genes which increase a person’s risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are also able to predict a individuals level of creativity.
Researchers studied the genetic information of 86,000 Icelandic citizens and found that when specific genetic variations were looked at in concert, the combination could predict mental illness.
When present, the pairs were shown to increase the risk of bipolar disorder by one third and doubled the average risk of schizophrenia. The scientists then examined how often these gene variants were present in “creative individuals.” Creative individuals, for the purpose of this study, were defined as people who belonged to national art societies, such as acting, writing and dance.
After studying the occurrence of these specific variants in sampled individuals, researchers found that “creative individuals” had these combinations 17% more often than non-creative people.
The team then increased the scope of the study by looking at another 35,000 people from Norway and Sweden. They were assessed for creativity by a questionnaire and were found to be 25% more likely to carry these genetic combinations.
“By knowing which healthy behaviors, 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,” said Robert Power, one of the paper’s authors. “Our findings suggest that creative people may have a genetic predisposition towards thinking differently.”
Critics have pushed back claiming that while a link is possible, it is so miniscule that it’s predictive ability is marginal at best.
They point to the fact that the genetic variants analyzed only explained about 6% of schizophrenia cases and just 1% of bipolar disorders. The same variants also only explained about 0.25% of the variation seen in people’s creative ability, according to a report in IFLScience.
Geneticist David Cutler, of Emory University, who was not involved in this study explains it this way: If artistic ability is a mile-long road where someone with high creativity stands at one end and someone with low creativity stands at the other, these genetic variations will only collectively explain about four meters (13 feet) of the distance. So not much at all, but not nothing either.
Another major problem with the study is the fact that defining creativity can be extremely difficult to objectively gauge as simply being involved in an art society is not necessarily an indicator of innate creativity.
What do you think; are creative people more prone to mental illness or is this just another stigma of societal indoctrination?
Jay Syrmopoulos is an investigative journalist, free thinker, researcher, and ardent opponent of authoritarianism. He is currently a graduate student at University of Denver pursuing a masters in Global Affairs. Jay’s work has previously been published on BenSwann.com and WeAreChange.org. You can follow him on Twitter @sirmetropolis, on Facebook at Sir Metropolis and now on tsu.