Creativity – It’s In Your Genes

Posted: 08 03, 2015

By Adele Musicant

Illustrated by Allie Mills

SWAC_Creativity_IllustrationMost of us have heard the story of Van Gogh and his ear:  he reportedly sliced it off after a quarrel with an artist friend who was thinking of severing (no pun intended!) the partnership. However, there is a plethora of similar stories: Virginia Woolf (a British novelist), the painter Henry Darger (a writer, artist, and recluse), and Edvard Munch (painter of The Scream), among others, all experienced periods of mental instability during their lives.1 Considering the relative abundance of creative individuals who experience mental illness, it is only natural that we as scientists should take an interest in the underlying causes and correlations between the two.

A 2011 study performed in Sweden2 showed not only that individuals who are bipolar or schizophrenic are more likely to enter creative professions (think artist, dancer, etc.), but that even their close relatives are more likely to be drawn to these career paths. Many of us are familiar with the idea that some types of mental illness can heighten creativity, but why are the close relatives of mentally ill patients also more likely to be creative? Multiple hypotheses surface here: the link can be environmental (a result of being in the presence of a creative person), genetic, or a combination of the two. It is the genetic hypothesis that a collaboration of universities across Europe and the United States has recently been investigating.

Previously, the same Swedish researchers who published the 2011 paper explored copy number variations (CNVs, or certain alterations in the genetic code) typically found in schizophrenic patient.3  They demonstrated that these same CNVs, when found in non-schizophrenic individuals, are associated with similar – though less severe – cognitive disruptions to those found in schizophrenics. This observation was taken as support for the genetic hypothesis mentioned above. Their newest paper4 took that finding a step further by studying two groups of people, one Icelandic and the other not. They generated polygenic risk scores (PRSs, a numerical value indicating alleles associated with a particular phenotype) for both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder from the non-Icelandic population and applied the risk scores back to the Icelandic group. They then quantified the ability of the risk scores to predict both schizophrenia/bipolar disorder and creativity in the Icelandic population. In fact, the polygenic risk scores for both mental illnesses correlated strongly with employment in creative professions! (And for those of you wondering, as I was, the education level of study participants was taken into account and had little to no effect on this correlation.) Creativity of the relatives of mentally ill patients was also correlated with the PRS, though to a lesser extent than expected.

I think one of the most interesting questions raised by these types of studies centers around the treatment of mental illness. (This is also addressed quite nicely in the 2007 Sussman paper.1) If Van Gogh had been treated using modern pharmaceuticals, would he have created such masterpieces as Starry Night? On the other hand, how can we not seek to alleviate the distress caused by such disorders as schizophrenia? An ethical dilemma can be seen here: how can there be a choice between a person’s mental health and an artistic career? For some, the choice may be easy. For others, the choice may be a defining controversy in their life. Perhaps someday, with careful modulation, we will be able to suppress the undesirable effects of certain illnesses while promoting the beneficial effects. Until then, this will most certainly continue to be an interesting debate.

  1. Sussman, A. (2007) Mental Illness and Creativity: A Neurological View of the “Tortured Artist”. Stanford Journal of Neuroscience. 1(1), 21-24.
  2. Kyaga, S., et al. (2011) Creativity and mental disorder: family study of 300,000 people with severe mental disorder. British Journal of Psychiatry. 199(5), 373-379.
  3. Stefansson, H., et al. (2014) CNVs conferring risk of autism or schizophrenia affect cognition in controls. Nature. 505, 361-366.
  4. Power, R.A., et al. (2015) Polygenic risk scores for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder predict creativity. Nature Neuroscience. 18(7), 953-956.

Peer edited and reviewed by Mejs Hasan and Zan Isgett


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This article was co-published on the SWAC Blog, The Pipettepen.

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