In 2009, Szabolcs Kéri, a psychiatrist and physiologist at Semmelweis University specializing in psychiatric disorders, was exploring a seemingly unrelated puzzle: why severe mental disorders that had a significant genetic basis persisted in the gene pool. Part of the answer, he found, was that some of those same mutations carried a highly positive trait as well: high creative ability. When he tested a specific polymorphism, or mutation, that was associated with a heightened risk of psychosis, he found that its carriers were also far more creative. They scored higher on all the measures of creativity that Kéri tested: originality, flexibility in thinking, and verbal fluency. He speculated that creativity and psychosis share an important feature: reduced cognitive inhibition, or a lower threshold for entertaining alternative thoughts and realities. (The neuroscientist and psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen wouldn’t be surprised by his results. She has spent her career tracking families in which creative talent is accompanied by a history of depression and mental illness. Galton, too, albeit in characteristically less politically correct fashion, noted, “I have been surprised at finding how often insanity or idiocy has appeared among the near relatives of exceptionally able men.”)Galton meaning Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's cousin and a pioneer of nineteenth-century psychology. I once thought that modern statistical analysis would debunk the ancient belief that art and madness go together, but it seems that science is instead confirming what we always believed.
Sunday, August 17, 2014
Creativity and Mental Illness, Continued
Maria Konnikova has a nice little essay at the New Yorker on whether artistic creativity is hereditary. She touches on one of my perennial topics, the connections between art and madness: