Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

Must One Risk Madness to Achieve Genius?

Recent research solves longstanding madness/genius paradox

"There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad." — Salvador Dali

Must one risk getting lost in the sea of madness in order to reach the lone island of genius? While not necessarily mad, creative minds are often chaotic, untethered and unhinged. These thought processes enable a creative person to bring together lots of seemingly disparate streams of information in a unique way not immediately obvious to those grounded in "reality." Which creates an interesting paradox: How can creative geniuses simultaneously be mad and brilliant? Only recently, however, have scientists been able to find out both what connects madness and brilliance, and what separates them. It turns out the key to this riddle is a deeper understanding of the most psychologically important dimension of human personality: Openness/Intellect.

Among the "Big Five" personality traits, the Openness/Intellect domain has been the most difficult for psychologists to describe. The problem is that it is such an all-encompassing domain, with psychological linkages to human art, aesthetic interests, unconventionality, imagination, creativity, perceived intelligence, and intellectual curiosity. While the unifying force of the domain is a drive for cognitive exploration, recent research conducted by myself and my colleagues (including Colin DeYoung and Jeremy Gray, who I worked with in graduate school) show that Intellect can be separated from Openness, both behaviorally and neurologically. Intellect is more related to exploration and engagement with abstract or semantic forms of cognition, whereas Openness is more related to engagement with perceptual and sensory experiences. This cognitive division has posed some problems for psychologists trying to understand this broad domain, because intellectual forms of cognition are mixed in with more intuitive and sensory forms of cognition. This situation has created a paradox: "intelligence" (as measured by I.Q. tests) and "madness" (as measured by tests of a mild form of schizophrenia called schizotypy) are negatively related to each other yet are positively related to the overall Openness/Intellect domain. How can this be?

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In a recent series of studies, Colin G. DeYoung, Rachael G. Grazioplene, and Jordan B. Peterson set out to resolve this paradox. Let's take a tour through their findings and theory. There's a lot to get through, but stick with me. I promise it'll be worth it!

First let's cover some terms. Schizophrenia is a debilitating mental illness that affects roughly 1 percent of the population and involves altered states of consciousness and "abnormal" perceptual experiences. Schizotypy, which is a watered-down version of schizophrenia, consists of a constellation of personality traits that are evident in some degree in everyone. Schizotypy can be broken down into two types: "positive" schizotypal traits such as unusual perceptual experiences and magical beliefs and "negative" schizotypal traits such as physical and social anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) and introversion. Researchers have been trying to figure out where exactly to place schizotypy in the Big Five structure of personality. Along the way, they have tried renaming positive schizotypy to such wonderful labels as "Oddity", "Peculiarity", and "Experiental Permeability". Apophenia is a component of positive schizotypy, and involves a general human propensity to see meaningful patterns when they don't really exist. Apophenia is a natural part of human nature. Some examples include wearing good luck charms, seeing Jesus in toast, or mistaking random sounds for someone calling your name. This can get more serious, such as seen in compulsive gamblers, but we all lie somewhere on the apophenia spectrum.

Now we've defined our terms, we can get to the good stuff. DeYoung and his colleagues decided that when looking at normal human variation, "apophenia" is a desirable replacement for the term "positive schizotypy." Apophenia is more descriptive of the actual phenomenon, and has more neutral connotations (schizotypy is associated with ideas of schizophrenia). They note that psychologists just haven't done a good job of measuring the apophenia side of cognition. This makes me wonder why psychologists have had a bias against apophenia-type thought (perhaps because apophenia is antithetical to good science?). Whatever the reason for the neglect, DeYoung and his colleagues predict that if more measures of apophenia are administered, apophenia will reveal itself in the Openness/Intellect domain.

And that's what they found. Across two studies, they administered a very large battery of personality questionnaires and a measure of I.Q. to well-educated middle-class Americans and Canadians, none of which were suffering from schizophrenia-spectrum disorders (in which apophenia is particularly severe). Therefore, their study was able to look at normal human variation in both intelligence and apophenia. Turns out, the key to resolving this longstanding complex paradox all comes down to a simplex.

The Paradoxical Simplex

A simplex is an arrangement of variables along a single dimension. The simplex describes, in a visual-spatial way, the strength of the relationships among the variables. Here is their beautiful "padoxical simplex":

As you can see, intelligence and apophenia are on opposite ends of the simplex. Intelligence is all the way at the top, and apophenia is all the way at the bottom, both separated by lots of different tests. In other words, even though they live on the same planet, they are miles away from each other. At the same time, all of the measures that appear on the simplex are positively related to the overall Openness/Intellect domain. Thus, the paradoxical nature of the simplex. As the researchers note, "some forces cause intelligence and apophenia to vary together, whereas other forces cause them to vary inversely."

One system that is probably acting on the entire Openness/Intellect domain is the dopaminergic system. Dopamine has mostly activating effects on behavior and cognition and contributes to approach behavior, sensitivity to rewards, and breadth of thinking. Dopamine has shown linkages to Extraversion, positive affect, Openness to Experience, broad thinking, and mental flexibility. Some evidence even suggests that variations in two genes involved in the dopaminergic system is indeed related to Openness/Intellect. That's what brings them together...

What forces pull intelligence away from apophenia?

As you can see in the simplex, an excellent marker of intelligence appears to be the "Need for Cogntion" scale, whereas an excellent marker of apophenia appears to be the "Absorption" scale. Which makes sense, considering the absorption scale include items such as:

"I like to watch cloud shapes change in the sky"

"Sometimes I feel as if my mind could envelope the whole world."

"Sometimes I experience things as if they were doubly real."

"Sometimes I am immersed in nature or in art that I feel as if my whole state of consciousness has somehow been temporarily changed."

"Things that might seem meaningless to others make sense to me."

Far out, man.

Interestingly, fantasy proneness was also a strong marker of apophenia. This is consistent with other research showing that fantasy proneness and daydreaming is not pathological, but a normal varying trait in the general population. So the difference between the two poles are clear. Those who lean toward the intelligence end of the simplex like thinking, and live in a world of ideas and competence, whereas those who lean toward the apophenia end enjoy patterns and fantasy. So what cognitive mechanisms separate the two from each other?

It is likely that Intellect, but not Openness, is influenced by dopaminergic projections particularly to the prefrontal cortex, considering that dopamine is crucial for working memory and other cognitive functions of that brain region. Working memory is important for distinguishing our current mental representations from the outside world. Some even argue that working memory is the seat of consciousness. What about Openness? While working on my doctoral dissertation, I found that implicit learning-- the ability to automatically learn covariation patterns in sensory information through experience-- was related to Openness but not Intellect. In other words, people differed in their ability to soak up patterns from experience and this ability wasn't related to I.Q. or an intellectual cognitive style but was related to Openness. In the current study, DeYoung (who was a co-author with me on the implicit learning paper) and his colleagues note that our human capacity for implicit learning may lead to overinterpretation of coincidence and sensory noise as meaningful patterns. Prior research has in fact shown that the tendency toward magical ideation (e.g., belief in telepathy) is positively related to the identification of meaningful patterns in noisy or random visual information.

While implicit learning is also related to the dopaminergic system, there are additional forces that cause intelligence to pull apart from apophenia. The researchers propose three possible mechanisms to explain the antagonism found between intelligence and apophenia:

1. Dopamine's effect on the prefrontal cortex exhibits a U-shaped function: too much dopamine, or too little dopamine, and cognition is impaired. There also appears to be some degree of antagonism between dopamine levels in the prefrontal cortex (which are associated with working memory) and dopamine levels in the striatum (which are associated with implicit learning and schizophrenia), with elevated levels of striatal dopamine often associated with reduced dopamine in the prefrontal cortex. DeYoung and his colleagues speculate that dopamine may increase apophenia at sufficiently high levels while at the same time disrupting cognitive functions such as working memory that are associated with intelligence.

2. Intelligence and apophenia are associated in opposite directions with the integrity of white matter tracts. White matter consists of axons surrounded by fatty insulation called myelination and helps communicate between different regions of the brain. Intelligence and working memory is positively related to white matter integrity in tracts within the prefrontal and parietal cortices. In contrast, white matter tracts in the frontal lobes show reduced integrity in those with schizophrenia as well as those in the general population scoring high in positive schizotypy. Interestingly, a recent study conducted on subjects high in intelligence found that both Openness/Intellect and divergent thinking (the ability to generate multiple creative responses) was related to decreased white matter integrity in the same areas as seen in those with schizophrenia. Their findings suggest that even though reduced white matter integrity may be a sign of reduced intelligence and increased mental illness, some reduction of frontal white matter integrity may enable mental flexibility and innovative cognition in the general population. The researchers of that study also suggest that white matter integrity in the frontal lobes may be a factor predisposing a person toward one end of the Openness/Intellect simplex or the other.

3. Lateralization of functions may be another factor that may pull Intellect and Openness in opposite directions. At the gross level of analysis, our left hemisphere specializes in functions relating to serial logical operations, whereas the right hemisphere specializes in functions related to global pattern recognition. Intelligence is associated with the structure and function of many different brain regions in the frontal and parietal lobes, but more associations are typically found in the left hemisphere. In contrast, schizophrenia is typically associated with reduced left hemisphere dominance. Some psychologists argue that elevated levels of dopamine in the right hemisphere produce the magical thinking and loose associations associated with positive schizotypy. Based on these earlier studies, DeYoung and his colleagues suggest therefore that a bias toward dominance of the left or right hemisphere may predispose people toward expressing traits at one end of the simplex or the other.


Now we can bring all of this together to look at associations with creativity. Prior research has shown that those scoring high in Openness (but not Intellect) report having more dreams and more vivid dreams than those scoring low in Openness. As I just reviewed, dopamine is associated with Openness. Turns out, dopamingergic projections to the cortex are necessary for dreaming as well. DeYoung and his colleageus suggest that "dreaming may be, at least in part, dopamingergically driven cognitve exploration similar to that associated with Openness/Intellect in waking." In other words, people high in Openness are always dreaming!

If this is so, it can explain a potential link between Openness and creativity. Studies have found that sleep and dreaming inspires creative insight, and people who have creative insights tend to show brain activations more in the right hemisphere. Therefore, Openness appears to be supported by dopamine surges to the right hemisphere, and these biological mechanisms are conducive to creativity, working hard day and night to inspire insights for those high in Openness.

Another possible linkage between Openness and creavitiy may come through absorption. In a recent study, Nelson and Rawlings had a sample of 100 artists from a wide range of artistic fields (including music, visual arts, theatre and literature) report aspects of their personality, their experiences of creativity and their levels of "postitive" schizotypal traits including absorption. Turns out, those reporting higher levels of engagement in the creative experience also reported higher levels of absorption and Openness. Absorption is related to flow-- the mental state of being completely present and fully immersed in a task. Flow is important for creativity, and but is not related to intelligence.

Of course, too much apophenia can be dangerous. Misidentify the structure of reality too frequently, and you're in danger of dipping too deep into madness. The important aspect for creativity appears to be the mental balance between both extremes of Intellect and Openness. Research shows a U-shaped function for the effect of indicators of schizotypy on creative achievement. Too few indicators of schizotypy or full-fledged schizophrenia, and creative achievement is impaired. In "The Genetics of Creativity: A Serendipitous Assemblage of Madness", Andrea Kuszewski presents the following graph to illustrate this point:

This mirrors the U-shaped function found for dopamine's effect on cognition. There may be an optimal balance between prefrontal dopamine and striatal dopamine for creativity. But a couple sprinkles of schizotypy may be necessary for mental flexibility, innovation and discovery.

This may be why the genes for Openness remain in the human gene pool. While full-blown schizophrenia is associated with reduced reproductive success, milder indicators of schizophrenia such as apophenia may be conducive to creativity and increased reproductive success. Randolph Nesse describes the relationship between Openness and fitness as a "fitness cliff," with the adaptive advantage of Openness increasing up to a point, after which fitness falls off the cliff. When apophenia is too severe, behaviors become maladaptive and too bizarre for potential mates. But mild levels are conducive to creativity, and functional creativity that isn't too bizarre is sexually attractive.

Daniel Nettle and Helen Clegg found that apophenia was positively related to a higher number of sexual partners for both men and women, and this relationship was explained by artistic creative activity. Similarly, in a more recent study conducted by Helen Cleff, Daniel Nettle, and Dorothy Miell, they found that more successful male artists (who are presumably higher in apophenia) had more sexual partners than less successful male artists (the picture to the left is South America-born German artist, Atom Heart).

Intelligence appears to be the key ingredient keeping apophenia in check. As DeYoung and his colleages note,

"Intelligence may compensate for the overinclusive pattern recognition associated with apophenia, diminishing the attendant risk for schizophrenia. In fact, it may be precisely high Openness with insufficient intelligence that produces severe apophenia. It might even be that Intellect and Openness covary in part because Intellect has been selected by evolution to occur with high Openness, so as to avoid the maladaptive drift into severe apophenia."

Which leads us to the question you've all been waiting for...

Must One Risk Madness to Achieve Genius?

DeYoung and his colleagues close their article with the following:

"Genius requires penetrating insight into reality, whereas madness is confusion about reality. Nonetheless, both madness and genius appear likely to be positively related to the broad trait of Openness/Intellect. Without the tendency to perceive patterns that is fundamental to Openness, Intellect may by unlikely to lead to the creativity required for genius. Perhaps, then, genius is most likely to emerge given the combination of high Intellect and high Openness, and one must risk madness to achieve genius."

Likewise, in "The Essential Psychopathology of Creativity", Andrea Kuszewski notes:

"Were it not for those “disordered” genes, you wouldn’t have extremely creative, successful people.  Being in the absolute middle of every trait spectrum, not too extreme in any one direction, makes you balanced, but rather boring.  The tails of the spectrum, or the fringe, is where all the exciting stuff happens.  Some of the exciting stuff goes uncontrolled and ends up being a psychological disorder, but some of those people with the traits that define Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, ADHD, and other psychological conditions, have the fortunate gift of high cognitive control paired with those traits, and end up being the creative geniuses that we admire, aspire to be like, and desperately need in this world."

The paradox is solved. In the general population, Openness is positively correlated with Intellect, but the correlation is far from perfect. Those who are extremely high in both Openness and Intellect form a small subset of the total population, but they may be the ones who are most likely to leave their stamp on posterity.

Must one risk madness to achieve genius? The answer appears to be yes, with one very important caveat: you must also have the Intellect to make sure you don't completely lose your grip on reality.

© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman.

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Further Reading:

Schizophrenic Thought: Madness or Potential for Genius?

Are People with Schizophrenia Living a Dream?

Schizotypy, Flow, and the Artist's Experience

Black Swan, Creativity, and Artistic Expression at the Edge of Madness

The Genetics of Creativity: A Serendipitous Assemblage of Madness

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist at NYU interested in intelligence and creativity development. He is the author of forthcoming Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.


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