Mental illnesses and creativity would have common genetic roots

Vincent Van Gogh. Ernest Hemingway. Antonin Artaud. Marlon Brando. These four personalities do not only share creativity. They are also famous mental patients who suffered from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. And there are many artists who suffer from psychic disorders. This is not a coincidence: creativity and mental illnesses have common genetic roots. This is the result of a study and analysis of genetic data of the Icelandic population. The results, published in Nature Neuroscience, show that creative people have genes for susceptibility to psychiatric disorders.

In a sample of more than 86,000 Icelanders, researchers have shown that genetic mutations associated with an increased risk of developing schizophrenia or bipolar disorder may also be linked to increased creativity. This genetic association has also been found in other studies involving nearly 9,000 Swedes and 18,500 Dutch. Individuals were classified into two groups: creative or not. To join the first group, one had to be part of a national artistic society (drama, dance, music, visual art, writing).

Researchers defined creative people as “people who are able to have an innovative approach using mental processes different from dominant modes of thinking or expression. They have retained in their study only the members of the national artistic societies of dancers, actors, musicians or writers. They also took into account the differences in IQ and educational level of the study participants, as well as the existence of relatives with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, to avoid bias.

“Our study supports the idea of ​​a direct role played by genetic factors on creativity,” the authors conclude. Their results are all the more convincing because they found no genetic mutation among the representatives of five other non-artistic professions (farmers, fishermen, employees, manual workers and salesmen).

Mental Illnesses and Creativity: How to Define Creativity?

If the idea that a link exists between mental disorders and artistic sense seems easy to accept, this study has many points to clarify. To begin, how to define the notion of creativity? Being a member of an artistic society does not necessarily mean that you are creative. And to what extent can a bank employee not be creative? As an explanation, the researchers propose a vague definition , considering creative people as “people capable of having an innovative approach using mental processes different from dominant modes of thought or expression”. (source)

Mental Illness and Creativity: A Variable Environment

For the authors of the study, creativity is characterized by cognitive processes different from the rest of the population. Psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are also characterized by impaired cognitive and emotional abilities. A link is not excluded. The genetic data confirm this hypothesis: the scores show that creativity is halfway between good mental health and psychiatric illness.

“The idea that these disorders reflect the extremes of the normal spectrum of human behavior more than a separate disease is gaining acceptance,” says Robert Power, lead author of the study. If we know what healthy behaviors, such as creativity, have a common biology with psychiatric illnesses, we will better understand the process that makes a person sick. Our results suggest that creative people may have a genetic predisposition that causes them to think differently. ” ( source )

This predisposition would be similar to that of bipolar or schizophrenic patients. But the “creatives” would have benefited from favorable genetic and environmental factors, unlike the latter.

David Cultler, professor and assistant in the Department of Human Genetics at Emory University in Atlanta, USA, notes that “the results are robust but very limited. He adds that the genes involved in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are “probably involved in all kinds of neurological and cognitive functions, not just those related to artistic abilities.” “

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