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Schizophrenia and Creativity

Why schizophrenia remains so common.

[This article was updated on 6 September 2017]

Some highly creative people have suffered from schizophrenia, including Syd Barrett (1946–2006), the early driving force behind the rock band Pink Floyd; John Nash (born 1928), the father of ‘game theory’; and Vaclav Nijinsky (1889–1950), the legendary choreographer and dancer.

The cases of Barrett, Nash, and Nijinsky are exceptional, and most people with schizophrenia are intensely disabled by the disorder. Even highly creative people with schizophrenia such as Barrett, Nash, and Nijinsky tend to be at their most creative not during active phases of the disorder, but before its onset and during later phases of remission.

Many more highly creative people, whilst not suffering from schizophrenia themselves, have or have had close relatives who do. This was, for example, the case for the physicist Albert Einstein (his son had schizophrenia), the philosopher Bertrand Russell (also his son), and the novelist James Joyce (his daughter).

This is unlikely to be simple coincidence, and a number of studies have suggested that the relatives of people with schizophrenia do indeed benefit from above-average creative intelligence.

According to one theory, both people with schizophrenia and their non-schizophrenic relatives lack lateralization of function in the brain. Whilst this tends to be a disadvantage for the former, it tends to be an advantage for the latter who gain in creativity from increased use of the right hemisphere and thus from increased communication between the right and left hemispheres.

This increased communication between the right and left hemispheres also occurs in people with schizophrenia, but their thought and language processes tend to be too disorganized for them to make creative use of it.

Schizophrenia affects about 1% of the population; the idea that the genes that predispose to schizophrenia also predispose to creativity — and thus confer an adaptive or evolutionary advantage — may help to explain why such a debilitating illness remains so common.

As the philosopher Aristotle put it more than 2,400 years ago, "There was never a genius without a tincture of madness."

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of Madness and other books.

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