Vincent van Gogh was believed to suffer from schizophrenia, and musician Kurt
Cobain was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The incidence of such conditions
among creative individuals has led researchers to speculate there may be a link
between creativity and psychiatric illness. Now, a new study finds this link
may be partly genetic.
First study author Robert Power, of
the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King's
College, London in the UK, and colleagues publish their findings in the journal
Creativity is defined by researchers
as "novel approaches requiring cognitive processes that are different from
prevailing modes of thought or expression."
Such approaches are normally adopted
by people who have visionary professions or hobbies, such as artists,
musicians, actors, dancers and writers. But does creativity increase an
individual's risk of mental illness?
Past research has found that mental illnesses - particularly bipolar disorder -
are more common among people with relatives who have creative professions. However, researchers have been unable to identify
the mechanisms underlying this association. For their study, Power and
colleagues wanted to find out.
"For most psychiatric disorders
little is known about the underlying biological pathways that lead to
illness," says Power. "An idea that has gained credibility is that
these disorders reflect extremes of the normal spectrum of human behavior,
rather than a distinct psychiatric illness."
"By knowing which healthy behaviors, such as
creativity, share their biology with psychiatric illnesses," he adds,
"we gain a better understanding of the thought processes that lead a
person to become ill and how the brain might be going wrong."
Creative professionals '25% more likely to carry bipolar schizophrenia gene variants.
With the help of researchers from
deCODE Genetics - a biopharmaceutical company in Iceland - the team was able to analyze data for 86,292 people
from Iceland's general population.
calculated genetic risk scores for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder for each
individual, and they identified the creativity of each person - determined by
their profession or enrollment in national artistic societies of dancers,
actors, musicians, writers and visual artists.
The team found that individuals whose
profession was a painter, musician, writer or dancer were 25% more likely to
carry gene variants related to bipolar or schizophrenia than those in less
creative jobs, such as manual laborers and farmers.
What is more, people who were a part
of national artistic societies were 17% more likely to carry gene variants for
bipolar or schizophrenia than individuals who were not members of these
Explaining what the results mean, Power says:
"Our findings suggest that creative people may have a
genetic predisposition toward thinking differently which, when combined with
other harmful biological or environmental factors, could lead to mental
Talking to The Guardian, study
co-author Kari Stefansson, founder and CEO of deCODE, notes that the genetic
factors identified in this study that increase the risk of mental illness only
explain around 0.25% of the variation in a person's creativity.
This means other genetic factors may
influence creative ability, or it could be influenced by a person's social
environment or life experiences.
Still, Stefansson believes their
finding identifying a genetic link between creativity and mental illness is an
interesting one. "It means that a lot of the good things we get in life,
through creativity, come at a price," he told The Guardian.
"It tells me that when it comes to our
biology, we have to understand that everything is in some way good and in some
In 2011, Medical
News Today reported on a study suggesting creative thinkers may be less
honest and more likely to cheat than non-creative thinkers, possibly because
they are better at devising excuses to explain their actions.
Source: Medical News Today