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Icelandic Scientists Find Link Between Creativity and Mental Disorders

Self-Portrait, August 1889, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (F626, JH1770) [1]
Vincent van Gogh, “Self-Portrait” (1889), oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC (image via Wikimedia)

There’s something strangely attractive about the stereotype of the crazy artist. Few may admit it, but the idea that van Gogh’s madness fueled his brilliance offers many hope that their own demons can produce something beautiful.

A team of scientists in Iceland recently investigated this notion. They wanted to find out if schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are linked with creativity — whether the genes associated with these mental diseases “may also underlie cognitive traits that can be advantageous to society.”

Their research substantiates that thought. Published June 8 in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the article claims creative people are much more likely to carry genes connected to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder than those who work regular jobs.

To reach this conclusion, the scientists first had to develop “polygenic risk scores” connecting certain genes to these diseases. They then tested the scoring systems to see how well they could predict them. The presence of their chosen genetic variants turned out to double the average risk of schizophrenia and raise the risk of bipolar disorder by more than a third.

Next, the researchers applied the polygenic risk scores to more than 80,000 Icelanders deemed “creative” — and that’s where it gets slightly sticky. They only studied people who worked in the fields of dance, film, music, theater, visual arts, and writing, even though you don’t necessarily have to be creative to have those jobs (or vice versa). The paper’s authors are aware of how limiting those parameters can be.

“Creativity can be viewed in various ways, and, although it is a difficult concept to define for scientific purposes, the creative person is most often considered one who takes novel approaches requiring cognitive processes that are different from prevailing modes of thought or expression,” they wrote. “Thinking differently from others is therefore a prerequisite for creativity.”

Keeping that in mind, their research unveiled a connection between the two. People who worked in creative professions were 25% more likely to carry genes associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder than their non-creative countrymen. And when they controlled for members of national arts societies, they found a 17% increase in likelihood. The findings held up when they applied their methods to 35,000 people from the Netherlands and Sweden using information from large medical databases abroad.

Creativity, it would seem, has a dark side, but the Icelandic researchers aren’t the first to suggest so. A 2009 study in Hungary connected a genetic mutation linked to psychosis and schizophrenia with creativity as well. A 2011 study similarly found creative people share certain traits with those who have schizotypal disorders. And a 2012 study by Sweden’s Karolinska Institute (and referenced in the current paper) indicated that writers have a higher risk of mental diseases than average.

“I think these results support the old concept of the mad genius,” Kari Stefansson, one of the Icelandic study’s authors, told The Guardian. “Creativity is a quality that has given us Mozart, Bach, van Gogh. It’s a quality that is very important for our society. But it comes at a risk to the individual, and 1% of the population pays the price for it.”

But not everyone is convinced. David Cutler, a geneticist at Emory University, told the newspaper that the link between genetic variants for mental illness and creativity is too weak. These genetic factors account for only about 0.25% in the variation of peoples’ artistic ability. “If the distance between me, the least artistic person you are going to meet, and an actual artist is one mile, these variants appear to collectively explain 13 feet of the distance,” he said.

Albert Rothenberg, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, added that the data is skewed. “Belonging to an artistic society, or working in art or literature, does not prove a person is creative,” he said. “But the fact is that many people who have mental illness do try to work in jobs that have to do with art and literature, not because they are good at it, but because they’re attracted to it.” Ouch.

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