The idea that very creative people are also a little crazy has been around since humanity's earliest days. In ancient Greece, Plato noted the eccentricities of poets and playwrights, and Aristotle saw that some creative types were also depressives. In modern times, that connection has persisted, from Robert Schumann hearing voices guide his music to Sylvia Plath sticking her head in an oven to Van Gogh cutting off his ear to Michael Jackson … being Michael Jackson.
Today the link between creativity and mental illness is firmly embedded in the public conscience. Unlike some supposed cultural wisdoms, however, there's a good bit of scientific evidence behind this one. Behavioral and brain researchers have found a number of strong if indirect ties between an original mind and a troubled one (many summarized in a recent post by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman at his Scientific American blog).
Creative professionals are a bit more likely than others to suffer from bipolar disorder. The healthy relatives of schizophrenics tend to enter creative fields. A genetic variant of some psychoses may be related to creative achievement. Some dimensions of schizotypy—personality traits that may make a person more vulnerable to schizophrenia—predict a person's creativity. The list goes on.
A neuroscience group out of Austria, led by Andreas Fink of the University of Graz, recently took the study of schizotypy and creativity a step further. Fink and collaborators recruited study participants who were low or high in schizotypy measures. While inside a brain scanner, the participants completed an idea-generation task that asks people to come up with original uses for everyday objects—a common assessment of creativity.
Fink and the others found some key similarities in the brain patterns of people who scored well on originality and those who measured high in schizotypy. These groups both showed reduced deactivation in the right precuneus, an area of the brain that helps us gather information. In the September issue of Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, Fink and the others conclude that perhaps creative and schizotypal people share an inability to filter out extraneous or irrelevant material.
"The finding that creativity and schizotypy show similar effects at the level of the brain would thus support the idea that similar cognitive processes may be implicated in creativity as well as in psychosis proneness," they write.
The new work enhances a theory by Shelley Carson, a Harvard psychologist and author of the book Your Creative Brain, which says that creativity and mental illness share a process called "cognitive disinhibition." The term is a mouthful, but essentially cognitive disinhibition describes a failure to keep useless data, images, or ideas out of conscious awareness. This failure may make schizotypal personalities more prone to delusional thoughts or mental confusion; on the flipside, it could make creative minds more fertile.
"[Y]ou have more information in conscious awareness that could be combined and recombined in novel and original ways to come up with creative ideas," Carson tells Co.Design.
Cognitive disinhibition is part of Carson's larger model of "shared vulnerability" between creativity and psychopathology. The idea here is that the presence and power of various cognitive factors will influence whether a person becomes creative, mentally unstable, or a little of both. These factors include cognitive disinhibition, of course, but also IQ, working memory, attention style, novelty preference, and more.
What's important to keep in perspective when considering the "shared vulnerability" model is that two people can share behavioral and biological vulnerabilities without being alike. That's why not all creative people are a bit crazy and why not every mentally ill person is especially creative. "It's not a one-on-one correspondence," says Carson. In fact, she says, most creative people don't exhibit severe mental problems at all; rather, the notable examples stick in our minds.
Which brings us back to our list of eccentric artists through the ages. Perhaps genes contributing to mental problems have persisted across humanity in part because they also contribute to superior creativity. "Even though we know mental illness in and of itself is not conducive to survival of the individual, there may be aspects of mental illness that promote survival in the overall species," Carson says. If that's true, the idea that very creative people are also a little crazy will be around for a long time to come.