by Jordan Smith
Limber bristles push thick strokes of indigo into a swirling sky as Vincent Van Gogh breathes kinetic energy into The Starry Night (1889). The rolling sky juxtaposing modest houses, a cypress tree and a steeple is renowned worldwide for conveying unparalleled turbulent emotion. Interestingly enough, the piece is a depiction of Van Gogh’s view from his asylum room window at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Just a year before, suffering from psychotic episodes and depression, Van Gogh had taken off his ear with a razor. Just a year later, Van Gogh would take his own life with a revolver. Regardless, Van Gogh is still revered today as one of the greatest artists to ever influence Western art.
The coining of the term and durability image of the “tortured artist” has endured; it is not difficult to think of creative geniuses who were mentally unstable. Famed poet and writer Sylvia Plath took her own life after struggling with depression, author and winner of the 1954 Novel Prize in Literature, Ernest Hemingway did the same. Is there a link between psychopathology and creative genius? Curious, scientists are determined to find out.
Research has proven a similarity in the mental processes of creative persons and persons measuring high in schizotypy. Schizotypy describes a spectrum of traits associated with symptoms of schizophrenia that to a degree, all individuals possess. Creative individuals and individuals with high schizotypy both share a unique filtration of information, causing them to keep less relevant information in conscious awareness. The inability to “filter out” is conceived as “cognitive disinhibition” by Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson, explaining how both groups exercise flexible thought, connecting ideas in unordinary ways. Illustrative of this activity is a pattern found in brain scans between schizophrenic and creative subjects, concluding failure to suppress the brain area called the precuneus (Hikaru Takeuchi, 2011). The precuneus is located in the parietal lobe, necessary for collection of information, self- consciousness, retrieval of memories, and mental representations. Thus both groups experience a higher neurological exposure to information. Similarly, both groups have been observed to employ reduced latent inhibition (Shelley Carson, 2011). Latent inhibition describes how one filters their experiences, giving certain meanings between new and familiar stimuli. Reduced latent inhibition thus is demonstrated by a tendency to treat familiar stimuli as novel despite previous experience with it. In other words, it makes sense that acclaimed artists readily reinvent objects or connect abstract things, as the ability to uniquely relate ideas is more accessible to them.
Interestingly enough, the processes behind latent inhibition are tied to dopamine regulation in the brain, the systems of which, in both schizophrenic and creative individuals, is also incredibly alike. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter released by the brain, playing a role in an
individual’s reward system and emotional response. The density of dopamine D2 receptors was found to be low in the thalamus of creative individuals, similar to that of schizophrenics, suggesting a link (Fredrik Ullén, 2010). Since the thalamus filters signals before they reach brain regions for reasoning, the low density of receptors is more evidence of the unique information flow. Asked to speak in regard to his discovery, Dr. Fredrik Ullén concludes, “Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box.”
Those with psychosis or creative genius demonstrate connectivity across unrelated parts of the brain. Neural hyperconnectivity describes an unusual connectivity in the brain caused by irregular synaptic pruning during development. Neural hyperconnectivity has been recognized frequently in schizophrenic individuals and their first-degree relatives (Whitfield-Gabrieli, 2009). At the same time, brain-imaging depicted similar unusually high levels of neural network across and within brain hemispheres of creative persons. Increased connectivity appears to mediate remote, unique associations.
Risk and Genetic Building Blocks
Beyond similarities in brain activity, a link between creative genius and mental illness is further advanced by genetic and risk patterns. Work in the past sets precedence for modern study, observing inheritance patterns and the susceptibility of creative persons to mental illness. In one of the earliest influential experiments regarding the subject, a sample of creative writers from the University of Iowa was selected and researched from a writing program, along with each subjects’ first-degree relatives and a control group. The study shows that 80% of the writers experienced a mood disorder and both creative interest and psychosis consistently endured in certain families (Nancy C. Andreasen, 1987). More recently, in the largest study ever conducted of the possible link, 300,000 individuals were selected using Swedish registries and were assessed for relation to psychopathology and their type of occupation. The only positive association between psychopathology and creative occupation was for bipolar disorder; however, first-degree relatives of diagnosed bipolar, schizophrenic, and anorexic patients, showed great representation in creative profession (Simon Kyaga, 2011). All in all, research offers evidence that creative individuals have a higher risk for psychosis, specifically bipolar disorder, creativity and mental illness proneness run in families, and relatives to psychotic individuals show high representation in creativity (Shelley Carson, 2011).
In terms of the genetics existing as our human building blocks, molecular studies have determined sets of variants of alleles that are associated with psychosis and creative cognition (Shelley Carson, 2011). Results emphasize variants of genes, most of which code for dopamine and serotonin function. Serotonin is linked to mood, state of consciousness, and certain levels are implicated in psychosis. Absorption of serotonin even more, is associated with creativity. Scientists stress that how these gene variants offer shared genetic vulnerability depends on whether or not there are complex interactions with each other, with other genes, and the individual’s experience in their environment.
The Fine Line
A model of shared vulnerability has been proposed as a result of neurological research. The model illustrates determinant factors relating creativity and psychopathology.
Hyperconnectivity, reduced latent inhibition, and novelty- seeking attitudes are all similar traits. These factors are shared, putting one at risk for psychopathy while also offering opportunity for creative exercise. The three other determining factors have to do with one’s ability to process information rather than become overwhelmed and confused. One with higher IQ can better perceive their novel ideas, recognizing what is extrinsically versus intrinsically experienced; one with flexible cognition can healthily interpret and move between altered states of consciousness, or different perspectives; finally, one with strong working memory can interpret multiple stimuli at the same time.
All in all, these experiments demonstrate that psychosis and creativity are linked genetically, evident by similar mental processes. Traits apparent in both identities place people almost on spectrums for shared vulnerability. Perhaps psychosis has persisted because creativity has been chosen for. This article now begs the question: how do both exist and interact in one individual? Of course, we would all welcome more Van Goghs.
Simon Kyaga, Paul Lichtenstein, Marcus Boman, Christina Hultman, Niklas Långström, Mikael Landén. “Creativity and mental disorder: family study of 300,000 people with severe mental disorder.” The British Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 199, no. 5, 2011, pp. 373-379.
Ullén, Fredrik; Cervenka, Simon; Karabanov, Anke; Farde, Lars. “Thinking Outside a Less Intact Box: Thalamic Dopamine D2 Receptor Densities Are Negatively Related to Psychometric Creativity in Healthy Individuals.” PLOS, 2010.
Brisch, Ralf. “The Role of Dopamine in Schizophrenia from a Neurobiological and Evolutionary Perspective: Old Fashioned, but Still in Vogue.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, vol. 5, no. 47, PMC, 2016.
Kaufman, Scott Barry. “The Real Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness.” Scientific American, 2013.
Takeuchi, Hikaru. “Failing to deactivate: the association between brain activity during a working memory task and creativity.” NueroImage, 2011.
Andreason, Nancy. “The relationship between creativity and mood disorders.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 2008.
Carson, Shelley. “Creativity and Psychopathology: A Shared Vulnerability Model”. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 2011.
Whitfield-Gabrieli, S. “Hyperacrivity and hyperconnectivity of the default network in schizophrenia and in first degree relatives of persons with schizophrenia.” Proc Natl Acad Sci, 2009.