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

Friday May 1, 2015


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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.

~Cynthia

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