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Creativity

Mad Genius: Schizophrenia and Creativity

What, if anything, is the link between psychosis and creativity?

Neel Burton
Source: Neel Burton

Some highly creative people have themselves suffered from schizophrenia, including Vaslav Nijinsky, the legendary dancer and choreographer, and John Nash, the father of game theory.

In 1912, Nijinsky made his choreographic debut with Afternoon of a Faun, set to music by Claude Debussy. The sculptor Auguste Rodin remarked of the final masturbatory scene that ‘nothing could be more striking than the impulse with which, at the climax, [Nijinsky] lies face down on the secreted veil, kissing it and hugging it with passionate abandon...’ In 1919, Nijinsky’s mental health deteriorated to such an extent that he could no longer perform. By the time of his death in 1950, he had spent over thirty years in a lunatic asylum.

John Nash (d. 2015) developed schizophrenia in his college years, but persisted with his studies and managed to build a career in academia. In 1994, he received the Nobel Prize for economics for ‘the pioneering analysis of equilibria in the theory of non-competitive games’ (game theory). The story of his struggles and ultimate triumph has been made into a book, and then into a film, called, A Beautiful Mind.

Unfortunately, cases such as those of Nash and Nijinsky are few and far between, and many people with schizophrenia are intensely disabled by their symptoms. Even the most creative or successful among them tend to be incapacitated during active phases of the illness, as, indeed, were Nash and Nijinsky. But there is something else…

Many highly creative people, while not themselves suffering from schizophrenia, have close relatives who do or did. The son of Albert Einstein suffered from schizophrenia, as did the son of Bertrand Russell and the daughter of James Joyce.

Beyond the anecdotal, several studies suggest that the relatives of people with schizophrenia enjoy above-average creative intelligence. For instance, one family study of 300,000 people with severe mental illness found that people with bipolar disorder and healthy siblings of people with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia are overrepresented in the creative professions.

According to one theory, both people with schizophrenia and their non-affected relatives lack lateralization of function in the brain. While this tends to handicap the former, it tends to advantage the latter, who gain in creativity from increased use of the right hemisphere and increased communication between the hemispheres. Increased inter-hemispheric communication is also found in schizophrenia sufferers, but, in this case, their cognitive processes are usually too disorganized for them to make productive use of it.

Some relatives of schizophrenia sufferers may be so close to schizophrenia as to meet the criteria for schizotypal personality disorder. Others who do not meet these criteria may nonetheless have mild schizotypal traits such as divergent and idiosyncratic thinking—sometimes colloquially referred to as ‘eccentricity’—which have been linked with creativity.

In 2005, Folley and Park at Vanderbilt University conducted a pair of experiments to compare the creative thinking processes of schizophrenia sufferers, ‘schizotypes’, and normal control subjects. In the first experiment, the researchers asked subjects to make up new functions for household objects. While the schizophrenia sufferers and normal control subjects performed similarly, the schizotypes performed better than either.

In the second experiment, the researchers asked the subjects to make up new functions for household objects while, this time, having their brain activity monitored. Compared to the other two groups, the schizotypes relied much more heavily on their right hemisphere to complete the task.

For Folley and Park, the results of these two experiments support the idea that increased use of the right hemisphere and increased inter-hemispheric communication is related to enhanced creativity in psychosis-prone populations.

Read more in The Meaning of Madness.

References

Kyaga S et al. (2011): Creativity and mental disorder: family study of 300,000 people with severe mental disorder. British Journal of Psychiatry 199:373-379.

Folley BS & Park S (2005): Verbal creativity and schizotypal personality in relation to prefrontal hemispheric laterality: a behavioural and near-infrared optical imaging study. Schizophrenia Research 80(2-3):271-82.

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