Our thoughts and emotions define us as individuals and as a species. We often classify those of a creative nature as thinking outside of the box, whilst stigmatizing those who are so far outside the box that they are diagnosed with a psychotic disorder.
But what is the true nature of the relationship between creativity and mental illness? When does thinking outside the box lead us to leave the box behind completely?
In a study just published in Nature Neuroscience, an international team of scientists have found a genetic link between creativity and the development of two psychiatric disorders: schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
The scientists report that people with these psychiatric disorders share common gene variants with otherwise healthy creative people.
This is new evidence that this particular group of genes has an influence over our thought processes and behaviour – making us more or less creative, and even more or less likely to develop psychotic disorders.
The research was conducted by Kári Stefánsson who is the CEO of deCODE Genetics, a private research institution in genetic research based in Iceland, along with colleagues from the UK, USA, and Japan.
Scientists have known for some time that certain mental disorders are prevalent amongst creative people. Still, the underlying relationship between psychosis and creativity has eluded them.
“We’ve known for a long time that schizophrenia is overrepresented in creative professions and we also know that there are genetic variations that indicate a risk of developing schizophrenia. But what we didn’t know was whether these genetic variants predisposed creative people to schizophrenia,” says Stefánsson.
To find out, the research team first identified the genes associated with schizophrenia and bipolar. They did this by analysing data contained in two big published studies.
They used a method called polygenic risk score which looks at thousands of DNA markers and identifies which groups of gene variants can predict a person’s risk of developing a certain disease. In this case schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
The scientists then used the markers to analyse genetic data from almost 90,000 individuals from Iceland and were able to accurately predict which individuals were diagnosed with either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Confident that they had identified the correct group of gene variants, the scientists then looked for an association between the group of gene variants and levels of creativity in people who were not diagnosed with either condition.
For the purposes of this study, the scientists defined a creative person as anyone involved in the arts as a professional or as a member of an artistic society.
They found that the genetic factors associated with an increased risk of developing schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are also responsible for levels of creativity in otherwise healthy people.
This common genetic link results in behavioural changes which influence our creativity and make us more or less susceptible to developing either of these two psychotic conditions.
“We see that abnormality in thinking, or thinking out of the box if you will, is not a consequence of either disease. In fact, it is likely that you already think differently due to these common genetic variants that alter cognitive functioning, which then put you at a greater risk of developing schizophrenia,” says Stefánsson.
Scientists have long believed that certain groups of genes come with a psychiatric risk that can result in changes in our behaviour, even in those that are not considered mentally unwell.
This is according to Jack Euesden, a PhD student from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at Kings College London. He is very impressed with the new study.
“This study has sparked a considerable amount of interest in the field of psychiatric genetics. Common genetic variants seem to be involved in psychiatric disorders – this is puzzling. These results shed light on this question, revealing a new role for genetic variants involved in psychiatric disorders,” says Euesden.
This is echoed by Professor Thomas Werge from The Institute Of Clinical Sciences at The University of Copenhagen and director of The Institute Of Biological Psychiatry in Copenhagen. He was not involved in the study, but has worked with members of the deCODE genetics team in Iceland for many years.
“This study addresses an old and intriguing question on the causal or functional relationship between schizophrenia or bipolar disorder and creativity or artistic ability,” he says.
According to Werge, the new study presents strong evidence of partially shared genetics between the two disorders and creativity, which implies that the underlying mental processes also partly overlap.
“This provides insight into the shared neurological and psychological mechanisms that may link psychotic disorders and certain personality traits like creativity,” he says.
So what does this mean for creative people and people with either a diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder?
Stefánsson describes it as a mixed bag of fortune. He suggests that society benefits from creativity but that those who develop one of the disorders may pay a high price.
However, both Werge and Euesden are positive about how this research may influence public opinion of schizophrenic or bipolar sufferers and helping to reduce the associated stigma.
“This might contribute to a change in the way we think about psychiatric illness – i.e. as the extreme end of [the scale of] normal variation, and contribute to reducing the stigma that has been associated with it historically,” says Euesden.
Werge stresses that there are many other factors involved in understanding the root cause of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
“One needs to keep in mind that the study addresses the commonalities between the two traits [psychosis and creativity] within one part of the entire genetic architecture of human beings,” he explains.
“This type of genomic variation certainly influences the risk of mental disorders, but so do many other types of genetic variation as well as environmental exposures. Thus, many types or forms of mental disorders may well be completely unrelated with creativity or artistic ability,” says Werge.