May Blog: The Science of Creativity: Are Creatives Born or Taught?

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I ran across an article the other day that surprised me, yet confirmed what many of us artistic types have always suspected: that there’s a link between highly creative people and mental illness. But the further implications of the cited studies prove even more profound!

“Secrets of the Creative Brain” (The Atlantic), by psychiatrist and neuroscientist Nancy C. Andreasen, (see full article) details the doctor’s decades of study on mental illness and creativity. She shares what she and other scientists have discovered about where genius comes from, whether it’s dependent on high IQ, and why mental illness so often accompanies it.

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What does this have to do with creatives being born or taught, you ask? Bear with me, and I promise you’ll be as astounded as I was. Andreasen’s article is lengthy and a bit clinical, so after some preliminary background, I’ll break it down into key points and add some of my own insights.

Although Dr. Andreasen has spent most of her career studying the neuroscience of mental illness, more recently, she has focused on the science of genius and the elements that produce highly creative brains. Specifically, the two following questions fuel her research: How do nature and nurture play into the quandary of why some people suffer from mental illness while others—like close relatives—do not. And why are/were so many of the world’s greatest creative geniuses more afflicted with mental illness than the general population?

Andreasen’s ongoing study grew out of the work of earlier pioneers such as Cesare Lombroso: Francis Galton; Havelock Ellis; and Lewis M. Terman, a Stanford psychologist who developed the IQ test. From Terman’s empiric, extensive study (1920s), scientists learned that high IQ does not predict high levels of creativity, even though the myth of the highly intelligent creative brain persists today. None of the participants in his study won any major awards (like the Pulitzer) for creativity, and few contributed creatively to society. Subsequent research studies confirmed Terman’s conclusion that high IQ does not predict high creativity. What they found, instead, was that highly creative people are generally pretty smart, but above a certain point, intelligence doesn’t have much of an effect on creativity. An IQ of 120 is considered sufficient for the creative genius.

In further studies, Andreasen hypothesized the link between mental illness and high creativity, using distinguished writers from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop (the most famous creative-writing program in the U.S) and creative legends with mental illness in their families: James Joyce, Bertrand Russell, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Kurt Vonnegut, Albert Einstein, and others. She not only confirmed Termen’s findings but also found that 80% of her subjects had suffered some type of mood disturbance in their life, compared to 30% of the control group. The connection between mood disorder and creativity was obvious. She also realized that many of these writers had creative relatives in other fields such as visual arts, chemistry, dance, mathematic, and architecture—and that creative geniuses often had close relatives with mental illness. Creativity tends to run in families, as does mental illness.

I am a writer..Andreasen’s study answered some questions, but raised even more provocative ones: Are writers were prone to mood disorders because of the lonely, introspective nature of the profession? How much of creativity is nature versus nurture? Why does creativity run in families? And if so, what component gets transferred? Is there a difference in creativity between scientists and artisans? She was astounded by what she discovered through MRI and PET studies. I’ll summarize her preliminary findings, highlight the key points, and add some fascinating corollary implications.

  • Andreasen’s creative subjects (scientists and artisans) and their relatives have a higher rate of mental illness than the control group. They also tend to have one or more close relative with schizophrenia. Other typical mental illnesses include: depression, alcoholism, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorder.
  • Highly creative people are better at making associations and connections—at recognizing relationships. They see things that others in the normal population can’t see. They “think outside the box” and are able to see the bigger scope of things.
  • The association cortices in the brains of highly creative individuals become extremely active during rest. This holds true for both artists and scientists. (which brings into question the wisdom of forcing students to choose between the arts and sciences). When flashes of brilliance strike, they are often triggered by long stretches of preparation, and gestation—and they hit while the mind is at rest. This speaks volumes on the importance of relaxation for both adults and children. Creative people need free time to dream and “veg out” in order for the association cortices to produce flashes of creative inspiration. Now I know why I get hit with brilliant insights or perfect narrative phrases while I’m listening to the radio and driving the car!
  • Creatives work much harder than normal people, probably because they enjoy their work so much!
  • Creativity runs in families and takes various forms. These families place great value on education and learning, so nurture obviously plays a role here too.
  • Other factors contributing to creativity probably have to do with personality, specifically the following: an adventurous, exploratory nature; risk-taking; persistence; obliviousness to the fact that their ideas are unique; feelings of excitement and joy about their gift; the desire to teach themselves instead of participating in traditional education; diverse interests in several fields of study; a tendency to see the big picture.
hand shows concept of "think outside the box"

Do you see yourself in this picture? I do. While I wouldn’t consider myself a creative genius, I certainly fit the criteria. I undoubtedly fall on the spectrum somewhere. Finally, science is confirming what most of us have already secretly surmised: 1. There’s a fine line between creative genius and mental illness. 2. The evidence strongly suggests that heredity plays a vital role in creative genius, but that environment nurtures the creative soul, as well. For writers, this implies that we may be able to learn the craft of writing through education, but we’ll never become masters of literature without a genetic predisposition. And the same probably applies to the other creative fields.

The iconic mad scientist and the crazy creative aren’t just anecdotes or fodder for snappy memes anymore; they’re either genetically predisposed creative geniuses, people suffering from mental illness—or a combination of both. The line of separation is thin, apparently. Throughout history, creative masters were thought to be odd or, worse, mad. I love Nelson Mandela’s wonderful quote: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” And visionary creatives are always the ones who do it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic! Share your opinions and anecdotes in the section below, and as always—just to prove how much I adore my readers—I’ll send a signed copy of Beautiful Monsters (with matching bookmark) to a randomly drawn commenter. Also, if you enjoyed this blog post, I’d appreciate a “share” on your social media pages. Thanks for stopping by! Happy reading and see you in June, tribe.


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I have worked and studied with many artists from lots of different genres and I would have to agree, we see things from a different perspective to others, we tend to be more sensitive and empathic to others as well. madness? Perhaps but I also believe the madness that comes with most writers, artists etc, at its very extremes is more of a self-harming one than that of the Psychotic killer type. So how do we categorise insanity? I have found that the true creative artist doesn’t show traits such as narcissism but quite the opposite more of a poring out of emotional caring for what they create and to feel for those who may be suffering even less emotionally than the artist..This is a wonderful topic for open discussion and thankyou Cynthia for allowing me to be part of it.


Neal, thanks for commenting! Yes, the big problems for writers seem to be depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. It seems they have a different method of thinking than normal people do, which was actually proven in the experiments mentioned in the article. To me, one of the most interesting revelations to come out of the experiments is that even if the writer or creative isn’t mentally ill, they usually have a first degree relative who is. This seemingly proves the old adage that there is a fine line between brilliance and insanity. Thanks for your wise comments!


Quite an important topic, Cynthia. We all wonder about our creative sides that seem to nudge us in wonderfully explorative directions. I sort of believe everyone is born creative, but traditional educational systems offer little expression in this direction … alas, we usually have to discover this side of ourselves on our own. The commitment to develop our creative sides is also a big part of the equation. Great post, thanks for all the research and insights!


Daisy, thanks for your always wise comments. I certainly believe that all people are born creative to an extent. Dr. Andreasen, however, tests for creative genius. The people she studies have all won top awards and critical acclaim for their creative endeavors, so they reside at the far end of the spectrum. And of course, I also agree that traditional education does little to foster creativity. It is left up to families to foster young creatives. What worries me is the busyness of the typical family life today. There is little unscheduled time to not only pursue talent but also to experience the necessary relaxation for imagination to germinate. Hopefully, once science has definitive answers about the creative brain, educators will support more creative arts programs in schools.

Jennifer Oneal Gunn

Very fascinating, Cyn. I almost laughed when I saw not only Schizophrenia as one of the illnesses, but one my family has rampantly running through it. Depression. So, yeah, like we talked about, that fine line is in a lot more families than we used to realize, I think. Interesting read for May. 🙂


Yes, I agree, Jennifer. As the old adage says: There’s a fine line between insanity and genius. Now we know that there are (at least) two types of genius: creative genius and intellectual genius. I’m willing to bet that wherever we see a highly creative person, we see mental illness (at least within the family). I found particuarly interesting the shared traits of highly creative people and the need for relaxation for the flashes of insight to occur. That’s something to keep in mind when we’re slaving away on our manuscripts. We need to let the brain rest to function well creatively. Thanks for your insightful comments, Jen!

Andrew Roberts

How Big is the Human Imagination ? I can think of numerous Universes…..the infinitely fine line between genius and madness is the line that is crossed by the imagination. Consequently, the impossible becomes possible and the explanations of the recipient in this Universe appear deluded, grandiose, out of this world and insane to the minds to are firmly rooted in reality……


Yes, I agree, Andrew. What I found interesting was the necessity for downtime for creatives. The brilliance occurs after intense periods of preparation and germination. It seems the imagination makes the leap to brilliance during these times of rest. With our hectic lifestyles today, so many people are overscheduled. Thus, relaxation is paramount to the creative adult or child.

Jarno Ahonen

Great. Brilliant. Genius. You are as I am. Thank You. I Like I Love, my very own creative “troubles”, challenges, enjoying, loving and creating more. That’s all what life is at its best.


Thanks for your kind comments, Jarno! This article certainly hit home for me. I think all creative minds realize that we’re different—that we see life in a unique way. And this ongoing research confirms it. You might be interested in reading Andreasen’s full article. Thanks for your comment!

Matthew Peters

This is a terrific piece on a fascinating subject. I definitely see you as the creative genius type, Cynthia, of which your exquisite writing is indicative. I found the insight about IQ and creative genius particularly interesting.


Matthew, you are so kind! Thank you. I certainly don’t consider myself a creative genius, but I’m somewhere on the scale—as are you, my friend. Yes, I found the correlation between IQ and creativity particularly interesting too. Most people believe that creative geniuses (different from intellectual genius) are highly intelligent. While they are above average on the IQ test (120), they don’t hit the upper range of IQ. I also enjoyed reading about the common traits of creatives. I was pinging on all points! lol But the biggest “take” from this article for me was that it helped me make sense of why I am the way I am. I hope other creatives will take comfort from that as well. Thanks for your comment, Matthew.