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Schizophrenic Thought: Madness or Potential for Genius?

How the schizophrenic mind may provide clues to creativity

Throughout our daily lives we experience an influx of emotions, sensations, and sounds. If we had to consciously decide at all times what to ignore and what to pay attention to, we would quickly become overstimulated. This ability to screen things out of awareness that were previously tagged as irrelevant is called latent inhibition. Latent inhibition has a strong biological basis and operates automatically to filter out information. Those high in latent inhibition are very good at this inhibition. Those with a reduced latent inhibition have a difficult time with this form of inhibition. Reduced latent inhibition has been associated with schizophrenia as well as a predisposition to psychosis.

Recently researchers have wondered whether a reduced latent inhibition can actually be beneficial for creativity. After all, decreased LI may make an individual more likely to see connections that others may not notice. Prominent psychologists such as Hans Eysenck and Colin Martindale have argued for the importance of disinhibition for creative thought. Indeed, research conducted by fellow PT blogger Shelley Carson and her colleagues have found among a sample of Harvard students that those with a high IQ and decreased LI tended to report increased creative achievement. This is fascinating because it suggests that a reduced latent inhibition in combination with adequate levels of executive functioning necessarily to sort out the influx of incoming information can lead to the very highest levels of creative achievement. We do know that many people with schizophrenia score very low on measures of executive functioning and demonstrate disorganized thinking. Perhaps that factor is limiting their actualized creative thought and achievement, even if they possess higher potential for creativity.

Something else we know about people with schizophrenia is that many have difficulty sorting out their emotions, often becoming overwhelmed with the influx of emotions they are experiencing. Since a lot of these emotions may be intuitions that are actually accurate, some people with schizophrenia may actually have a greater chance of making a creative connection than someone without schizophrenia. In the most severe phases of schizophrenia these intuitions may be overwhelming, but in those without acute level schizophrenia, a low latent inhibition may lead to higher faith in intuition because so many of the intuitions are actually quite correct.

Interested in the link between faith in intuition and latent inhibition, I wondered whether (among a sample of individuals with normal levels of executive functioning) those who report a higher faith in their gut feelings would show reduced latent inhibition. I measured latent inhibition in a batch of high-achieving (with at least an average level of IQ and working memory) of 16-18 year old students in England. I won't go into much detail about the task since investigations using the task are still ongoing, but the task is patterned after a measure of auditory latent inhibition Psychologist R.E. Lubow used to show latent inhibition differences in low and high ‘psychotic-prone' participants. The task consists of two phases. During the first phase, there is a part of the task is irrelevant to the completion of the task. During the second phase however, that same aspect is now relevant and is actually necessary to figuring out the right answer.

Participants also rated their level of faith in intuition, as assessed by Psychologist Seymour Epstein's Rational-Experiential Inventory. Those scoring higher in faith in intuition scored higher on items such as "Intuition can be a very useful way to solve problems", "Using my ‘gut feelings' usually works well for me in figuring out problems in my life", and "I believe in trusting my hunches".

I found that those who reported a higher faith in intuition displayed decreased latent inhibition. In other words, those who reported higher faith in their intuitions allowed the information that was tagged as irrelevant in the first phase to be treated as novel and interesting in the second phase, and by doing so were faster at figuring out the answer. I even found that those high in faith in intuition benefitted more from a condition in which participants encountered the irrelevant stimuli in the first phase of the task than those scoring medium and low in faith in intuition.

Latent inhibition was not related to IQ, working memory, or a rational cognitive style. Latent inhibition also was not related to the Myers-Briggs Intuition scale which measures preference for a holistic form of intuition that is affect neutral. This suggests that affect really was an important part of the link to latent inhibition in my sample.

Interestingly, those with higher IQs were no more likely to get the right answer during the second phase of the task. Indeed, I observed many students with very high IQs extremely frustrated that they couldn't figure out the answer during the second phase of the task.

Since reduced latent inhibition has been associated with psychosis, an interesting question is: under what conditions might the factors that cause decreased LI also contribute to psychosis and when might these factors facilitate greatness?

Psychologist Jordan Peterson has proposed that the individual predisposed to schizophrenia may suffer from an influx of experiential sensations and possess insufficient executive functioning to cope with the influx, whereas the healthy individual low in LI and open to experience may be better able to use the information effectively while not becoming overwhelmed or stressed out by the incongruity of the situation. Indeed, this idea of "sensory gating" has been quite influential in the literature on schizophrenia.

To take things a bit further, I think that an openness to intuition in combination with the ability to consciously decide when it is appropriate to listen to that intuition can result in high levels of creative achievement. People with schizophrenia may be predisposed through high levels of the chemical dopamine to seek out and explore more possible connections than other individuals. Many times, these individuals may actually make a novel and practical connection. This low latent inhibition may result in a high faith in intuition. Poor executive functioning, however, may cause people with schizophrenia to become overwhelmed with the influx of intuitions.

Further research will need to investigate these ideas and test alternative interpretations of the relation found in my study. Nonetheless, an understanding of the biological basis of individual differences in different forms of implicit processing and their relationship to openness to experience and intuition will surely increase our understanding of how certain individuals attain the highest levels of creative accomplishment. Perhaps such research will even allow us to stop rehashing old ideas about the potential links between madness and creativity and re-conceptualize the thought processes that are prone to psychosis not as madness at all but as potential for creative greatness.

© 2009 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved



Kaufman, S.B. (2009). Faith in intuition is associated with decreased latent inhibition in a sample of high-achieving adolescents. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3, 28-34. [pdf]

Thanks to David Roberts for insightful comments on an earlier draft and the entire Bret Logan discussion group for inspiration.