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The Real Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This blog appears in the In-Depth Report Genius, Suicide and Mental Illness: Insights into a Deep Connection

“There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.”
—Salvador Dali

The romantic notion that mental illness and creativity are linked is so prominent in the public consciousness that it is rarely challenged. Researchers agree that mental illness is neither necessary nor sufficient for creativity.  But is there still a connection between the two?

The oft-cited studies by Kay Redfield Jamison, Nancy Andreasen, and Arnold Ludwig showing a link between mental illness and creativity have been criticized on the grounds that they involve small, highly specialized samples with weak and inconsistent methodologies and a strong dependence on subjective and anecdotal accounts.

To be sure, research does show that many eminent creators– particularly in the arts–had harsh early life experiences (such as social rejection, parental loss, or physical disability) and mental and emotional instability. However, this does not mean that mental illness was a contributing factor to their eminence. There are many eminent people without mental illness or harsh early life experiences, and there is very little evidence suggesting that clinical, debilitating mental illness is conducive to productivity and innovation.

What’s more, only a few of us ever reach eminence. Thankfully for the rest of us, there are different levels of creativity. James C. Kaufman and Ronald Beghetto argue that we can display creativity in many different ways, from the creativity inherent in the learning process (“mini-c”), to everyday forms of creativity (“little-c”) to professional-level expertise in any creative endeavor (“Pro-c”), to eminent creativity (“Big-C”).

Engagement in everyday forms of creativity– expressions of originality and meaningfulness in daily life– certainly do not require suffering. Quite the contrary, my colleague and friend Zorana Ivcevic Pringle found that people who engaged in everyday forms of creativity– such as making a collage, taking photographs, or publishing in a literary magazine– tended to be more open-minded, curious, persistent, positive, energetic, and intrinsically motivated by their activity. Those scoring high in everyday creativity also reported feeling a greater sense of well-being and personal growth compared to their classmates who engaged less in everyday creative behaviors. Creating can also be therapeutic for those who are already suffering. For instance, research shows that expressive writing increases immune system functioning, and the emerging field of posttraumatic growth is showing how people can turn adversity into creative growth.

So is there any germ of truth to the link between creativity and mental illness? The latest research suggests there is something to the link, but the truth is much more interesting. Let’s dive in.

The Real Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness

In a recent report based on a 40-year study of roughly 1.2 million Swedish people, Simon Kyaga and colleagues found that with the exception of bi-polar disorder, those in scientific and artistic occupations were not more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders. So full-blown mental illness did not increase the probability of entering a creative profession (even the exception, bi-polar disorder, showed only a small effect of 8%).

What was striking, however, was that the siblings of patients with autism and the first-degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia nervosa were significantly overrepresented in creative professions. Could it be that the relatives inherited a watered-down version of the mental illness conducive to creativity while avoiding the aspects that are debilitating?

Research supports the notion that psychologically healthy biological relatives of people with schizophrenia have unusually creative jobs and hobbies and tend to show higher levels of schizotypal personality traits compared to the general population. Note that schizotypy is not schizophrenia. Schizotypy consists of a constellation of personality traits that are evident in some degree in everyone.

Schizotypal traits can be broken down into two types. “Positive” schizotypy includes unusual perceptual experiences, thin mental boundaries between self and other, impulsive nonconformity, and magical beliefs. “Negative” schizotypal traits include cognitive disorganization and physical and social anhedonia (difficulty experiencing pleasure from social interactions and activities that are enjoyable for most people). Daniel Nettle found that people with schizotypy typically resemble schizophrenia patients much more along the positive schizotypal dimensions (such as unusual experiences) compared to the negative schizotypal dimensions (such as lack of affect and volition).

This has important implications for creativity. Mark Batey and Adrian Furnham found that the unusual experiences and impulsive nonconformity dimensions of schizotypy, but not the cognitive disorganization dimension, were significantly related to self-ratings of creativity, a creative personality (measured by a checklist of adjectives such as “confident,” “individualistic,” “insightful,” “wide interests,” “original,” “reflective,” “resourceful,” “unconventional,” and “sexy”), and everyday creative achievement among thirty-four activities (“written a short story,” “produced your own website,” “composed a piece of music,” and so forth).

Recent neuroscience findings support the link between schizotypy and creative cognition. Hikaru Takeuchi and colleagues investigated the functional brain characteristics of participants while they engaged in a difficult working memory task. Importantly, none of their subjects had a history of neurological or psychiatric illness, and all had intact working memory abilities. Participants were asked to display their creativity in a number of ways: generating unique ways of using typical objects, imagining desirable functions in ordinary objects and imagining the consequences of “unimaginable things” happening.

The Precuneus

The researchers found that the more creative the participant, the more they had difficulty suppressing the precuneus while engaging in an effortful working memory task. The precuneus is the area of the Default Mode Network that typically displays the highest levels of activation during rest (when a person is not focusing on an external task). The precuneus has been linked to self-consciousness, self-related mental representations, and the retrieval of personal memories. How is this conducive to creativity? According to the researchers, “Such an inability to suppress seemingly unnecessary cognitive activity may actually help creative subjects in associating two ideas represented in different networks.”

Prior research shows a similar inability to deactivate the precuneus among schizophrenic individuals and their relatives. Which raises the intriguing question: what  happens if we directly compare the brains of creative people against the brains of people with schizotypy?

Enter a hot-off-the-press study by Andreas Fink and colleagues. Consistent with the earlier study, they found an association between the ability to come up with original ideas and the inability to suppress activation of the precuneus during creative thinking. As the researchers note, these findings are consistent with the idea that more creative people include more events/stimuli in their mental processes than less creative people. But crucially, they found that those scoring high in schizotypy showed a similar pattern of brain activations during creative thinking as the highly creative participants, supporting the idea that overlapping mental processes are implicated in both creativity and psychosis proneness.

It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible. Because you never know: sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas. Indeed, Shelley Carson and her colleagues found that the most eminent creative achievers among a sample of Harvard undergrads were seven times more likely to have reduced latent inhibition. In other research, they found that students with reduced latent inhibition scored higher in openness to experience, and in my own research I’ve found that reduced latent inhibition is associated with a faith in intuition.

What is latent inhibition? Latent inhibition is a filtering mechanism that we share with other animals, and it is tied to the neurotransmitter dopamine. A reduced latent inhibition allows us to treat something as novel, no matter how may times we’ve seen it before and tagged it as irrelevant. Prior research shows a link  between reduced latent inhibition and schizophrenia. But as Shelley Carson points out in her “Shared Vulnerability Model,” vulnerable mental processes such as reduced latent inhibition, preference for novelty, hyperconnectivity, and perseveration can interact with protective factors, such as enhanced fluid reasoning, working memory, cognitive inhibition, and cognitive flexibility, to “enlarge the range and depth of stimuli available in conscious awareness to be manipulated and combined to form novel and original ideas.”

Which brings us to the real link between creativity and mental illness.

Recent research suggests that creative cognition draws on both the executive functioning that is tied to Intellect and the associative divergence that is associated with Openness (Nusbaum and Silvia, 2011; Beaty et al., 2014; Benedek et al., 2014; Jung, 2014) increases the probability that ideas will be original. Whether the idea is creative, however, also depends on the protective intellectual factors needed to steer the chaotic storm.

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Disclaimer: Portions of this post were taken from this post and this book.

Note: For much more on the real links between mental illness and creativity, I highly recommend the upcoming book “New ideas about an old topic: Creativity and mental illness,” edited by James C. Kaufman, due out next year! I also recommend the following paper by Andrea Kuszewski: “The Genetics of Creativity: A Serendipitous Assemblage of Madness.”

photo credit #1:; photo credit #2: woman writing by valerie hardy; photo credit #3: searching for a baseline: functional imagining and the resting human brain; photo credit #4: istockphoto

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. ultimobo 5:12 pm 10/3/2013

    interesting – as I observe most of our learning is by watching others’ examples and copying that behaviour – if we live with ‘different’ people that would give us easy examples of how to be different – makes sense …

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  2. 2. Douglas Eby 10:19 pm 10/3/2013

    Thanks. One of the intriguing ideas is how schizotypy may facilitate “associating two ideas represented in different networks.” Maybe I am only seeing the superficial aspects of this, but it reminds me of psychologist Elaine Aron, who has commented that people with the trait of high sensitivity “are all creative by definition because we process things so thoroughly and notice so many subtleties and emotional meanings that we can easily put two unusual things together.”

    Research using fMRI found that people with sensory processing sensitivity “tended to have more brain activity in the high-order visual processing regions, and in the right cerebellum, when detecting minor details of photographs presented to them…But the study showed that highly sensitive people do not quickly take in these details; in fact, they spend more time looking at them.” – From my Highly Sensitive site post “Better at noticing subtle details”

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  3. 3. LenaW 9:11 am 10/4/2013

    What If You Could Create & Control Human Strength Mentally? Explore the topic here

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  4. 4. tchmathculture 11:56 am 10/4/2013

    I wonder how much of the first-degree relative finding is social too. When you have a mentally ill relative you often learn to see the world through their eyes. My father was schizophrenic and often delusional. I spent a good part of my childhood trying to make sense of some pretty wild ideas of his, turning them over and reconciling them with the reality I knew. It may have exercised my empathy in a way that developed creativity.

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  5. 5. arielriveros 3:43 am 10/9/2013

    in the history of psychology, Hans Eysenck developed a category called “psychoticism” – while not identical to psychosis, it shared some features with its historical taxonomy. And pyschoticism for Eysenck was proximate to the creativity of artists.

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  6. 6. jgrosay 7:10 pm 10/9/2013

    From data gathered in SciAm and other places I guess that to start seriously in creativity, an IQ, whatever IQ tests measure, of 128 or above is needed. As no creature has ever created something from the nil, we can conclude that ‘creativity’ may be some kind of building new combinations or permutations of already existing things, knowing mathematics can help in this, and for new combinations you need an environment rich enough in elements, you can’t combine in many different ways just a dozen of objects, and this may be an explanation of the reason why creativity being shown only in near times as the ancient Greece.

    Some paople with mental disorders show what is called ‘loosening of associations’, they link things that for most of mankind will be too apart to be connected, and in this line, profesor JJ Lopez-Ibor, once president of the world’s psychiatric association, said without hesitation that: ‘Artists are rarely 100% sane’, or something like.
    Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote ‘Praise of folly’, and this condition may be a help in dealing with such a challenging and stressful place as ‘modern’ society.

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  7. 7. BuckSkinMan 7:49 pm 08/12/2014

    I’ve noticed over a lifetime that I am often making connections few other people see – and which later turn out to be correct or genuinely insightful. The other thing I’ve noticed is that people who may seem creative but are already known to be mentally ill tend to be low in social skills, skeptical or even hostile to what the world sees as healthy, normal social activities.

    I’ve also scored at the top in reading & writing skills and have published a few short fiction stories. I had a half-brother who was diagnosed with mental illness and who attempted suicide more than once. He died of other causes earlier this year. He had a “creative impulse” too but it seems stunted and lacking in any sense of “place” relative to any kind of art.

    I never believed the “you’ve got to be nuts in order to be creative” school of thought.

    As for Mr. Williams’ suicide I just think it’s sad. It’s well known that he had some problems with drugs and apparently with depression. It seems wrong that there was no way to help him because he did contribute through his creativity and humor.

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  8. 8. Raghuvanshi1 11:38 pm 08/12/2014

    There are many creative artists who never suffered by mental illness till they produced classical books.Tolstoy Albert Camus,Cervantes all are sound minded artists.Freud openly admitted that he didn’t found any clue between mental illness and creativity in life of Dostoevsky.I agree some creative artists just like Kafka,Van Gough were mentally ill artists,but we cannot have profs any connection between their art ans mental illness

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  9. 9. TechHistoryDoc 4:07 am 08/13/2014

    Do individuals who are stereo- or multilingual from an early age tend to be more creative than those who are raised as mono-lingual?
    It would seem that continuously contemplating and sensing all cognition with more than one identity for all lingual inputs would lead to an increase in ‘creativity’ per se, if not an increase in objectively measured general intelligence as well.

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  10. 10. neuropostdoc 9:02 pm 08/13/2014

    My aunt has schizophrenia and my strongest (and most valued) cognitive asset is creativity. I’ve always felt that most people see the world like a subway map, while I see it like a fractal (each piece reminds me of another)- to the extent that it is difficult to suppress recognition of similarity in favor of discrimination of necessary differences. Same for my dad, her first-degree relative. This over-relatedness helps in some areas of neuroscience, like thinking about overlapping neural functions, and makes other aspects more difficult. Interestingly, when I was scanned as a pilot subject for someone’s fMRI experiment, they noted that they were surprised by the level of precuneus activation they say during their task.

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