The Relationship Between Creative Genius and Mental Illness

What exactly is creative genius? How do we define it? Is creativity nurtured or is it genetic? Where do great ideas come from? What is the relationship between creative genius and mental illness?

Neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen answers these questions in this fascinating article about the secrets of the creative brain and how creative genius and mental illness are related. I found this whole study intriguing. Some writers argue that mental illness and creativity don't go hand-in-hand, while people like Andreasen have substantial proof that they do, in fact, have a relationship. Andreasen also talks about creative geniuses and their family members who suffer from mental illness. I found this extremely interesting, given that my own family has a history of mental illness, including my grandfather who suffers from schizophrenia.

So far, this study—which has examined 13 creative geniuses and 13 controls—has borne out a link between mental illness and creativity similar to the one I found in my Writers’ Workshop study. The creative subjects and their relatives have a higher rate of mental illness than the controls and their relatives do (though not as high a rate as I found in the first study), with the frequency being fairly even across the artists and the scientists. The most-common diagnoses include bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety or panic disorder, and alcoholism. I’ve also found some evidence supporting my early hypothesis that exceptionally creative people are more likely than control subjects to have one or more first-degree relatives with schizophrenia. Interestingly, when the physician and researcher Jon L. Karlsson examined the relatives of everyone listed in Iceland’s version ofWho’s Who in the 1940s and ’60s, he found that they had higher-than-average rates of schizophrenia. Leonard Heston, a former psychiatric colleague of mine at Iowa, conducted an influential study of the children of schizophrenic mothers raised from infancy by foster or adoptive parents, and found that more than 10 percent of these children developed schizophrenia, as compared with zero percent of a control group. This suggests a powerful genetic component to schizophrenia. Heston and I discussed whether some particularly creative people owe their gifts to a subclinical variant of schizophrenia that loosens their associative links sufficiently to enhance their creativity but not enough to make them mentally ill.

Her last line is interesting to me--I've often wondered the same thing because I often have loose associations between things, but am not schizophrenic. Having these kinds of associations can make me feel weird, especially when other people don't have the same associations. And yet, Andreasen talks about persistence as a common trait that creatives have in the face of rejection:

Creative people tend to be very persistent, even when confronted with skepticism or rejection. Asked what it takes to be a successful scientist, one replied: Perseverance … In order to have that freedom to find things out, you have to have perseverance … The grant doesn’t get funded, and the next day you get up, and you put the next foot in front, and you keep putting your foot in front … I still take things personally. I don’t get a grant, and … I’m upset for days. And then I sit down and I write the grant again.

The same goes with writing and rejection. Or writing a particularly difficult piece.

How do great ideas emerge from these creative geniuses?

As for how these ideas emerge, almost all of my subjects confirmed that when eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed—during that state we called REST. “A lot of it happens when you are doing one thing and you’re not thinking about what your mind is doing,” one of the artists in my study told me. “I’m either watching television, I’m reading a book, and I make a connection … It may have nothing to do with what I am doing, but somehow or other you see something or hear something or do something, and it pops that connection together.”

This whole piece is very well done. Read the entire feature here.

Photo above from here.

Lisa Kerr is a California blogger at You can find her on Twitter @thereallisakerr


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