Suggesting that creativity and psychiatric disorders may have genetic overlaps isn’t as crazy as you’d think, especially since great thinkers have already expressed the idea. But a recent study comes to provide solid evidence attesting to this link. Published in Nature Neuroscience, this massive study claims that the same genetic factors connected to an increased risk of bipolar disorders and schizophrenia are also found more often in people with outstanding creativity.
The team of researchers divided the study participants according to their professions, and the professions according to a higher or a lower level of creativity they required. While salespeople, farmers, construction workers or other manual laborers were considered to require less creativity in their profession, dancers, painters, writers, singers and songwriters required more.
Where creative professions (and those who carried these professions out) were concerned, the likelihood of being a carrier of the gene variant believed to raise the risk of developing mental disorders was 25 percent higher as compared to their less-creative counterparts. When compared to the general population, artists were 17 percent more likely to carry the gene variant.
In total, the team of researchers studied the genetic material of 86,000 people in Iceland. After identifying the precise gene variants involved in mental disorder development, the investigators searched for the same variants in a group of 1,000 artists. The results were then verified by investigating medical databases from Sweden and the Netherlands. 35,000 more people were taken into account and the results were the same.
“The results of this study should not have come as a surprise, because to be creative, you have to think differently from the crowd,” Kari Stefansson, lead author and deCODE founder said.
Of course, it is not the gene variant alone that cause people to suffer specific mental disorders. Although it does alter the ways in which thought processes are run, the gene variant has to be corroborated with life experiences and additional influences in order to culminate in illness.
These genes, Stefansson explains, allow the human mind to think in new and unique ways which often straddle between what we consider sane and insane. Such gene variants have given humanity many gifts, the likes of Mozart or Van Gogh. But there is a price to pay, and 1 percent of the population sadly has to pay.
Each study has its limitations and this study is no exception. The lead author himself admits that the genetic link identified by him and his team is weak. Although involved in the creative process, the gene variation itself (which also raises the likelihood of developing mental illnesses) only accounts for 0.25 percent of artistic ability variations.
Critics of the study insist that modern-day scientists should not rely on romantic notions of creativity and insanity. The explanation, they say, is much simpler: Van Gogh, for instance, was not only mentally ill but also exceptionally creative.
Even so, psychological theories also postulate that the schizophrenic spectrum often involves a decline of practical reasoning. Whether the study’s results and how they support the idea that creativity shares psychological attributes with psychiatric disorders is true remains to be further studied.
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