The link between madness and creativity

'The risk for schizophrenia is substantially higher in creative professions,' study author writes

Individuals who choose creative career paths like writing or visual arts appear more likely to be genetically predisposed to develop mental issues like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Melissa Healy reports for the Los Angeles Times' "Science Now."

The findings appear in a new Nature Neuroscience study, which draws on data from Iceland's DeCode Project. The DeCode Project aims to sequence the genomes of nearly 3,000 people and partially sequence those of more than 104,000 others, in an attempt to determine the genetic foundations of certain diseases and conditions.

For the study, researchers examined 80,000 Icelandic individuals and found that those who belonged to societies of dancers, writers, visual artists, or musicians were nearly 17% more likely to be genetically vulnerable to bipolar disorder or schizophrenia than individuals who worked in different industries.

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Similar data from four previous studies of 35,000 people in Sweden and the Netherlands found that people employed in creative industries were 25% more likely to develop a mental illness than those in more buttoned-up fields, according to the Times. Other studies that have examined healthy individuals who carry genetic markers associated with psychosis found that such individuals' brains do operate differently than those people who do not carry the markers.

According to co-author Kári Stefánsson, a neurologist and CEO of a biological research company called deCODE Genetics, many people carry genetic mutations that can slightly increase their risk of developing mental illness like psychosis. However, many of these carriers do not actually develop a psychotic disorder—but do end up in tune with their artistic sides and select more creative professions.

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Ray DePaulo Jr., a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, acknowledges that the new study identifies "small" differences that "could add up to something important."

Steffánsson adds that the "risk for schizophrenia is substantially higher in creative professions than in the average population in Iceland," and if people are affected by creative inclinations from these genes, then "the variance in the genome that leads to creativity also leads to schizophrenia," he concluded.

Other experts still skeptical

However, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Scott Kaufman disputes Steffánsson's claim, noting that gene variance only explains a small percentage of how our psychological traits develop. Kaufman says "things like what you have going on in your life, your environment, etc." are more likely to explain the development of a mental illness.

Steffánsson acknowledges the study's limitations and says the genes are not a "major contributor to the creativity in all of us." However, he concludes, "But they exist... with fairly high frequency."

Kay Jamison, a clinical psychologist at Johns Hopkins, concludes the study does raise a "fundamental" problem that has significant implications. "If you can figure out what these genes are, can you make people not be creative?" she asks (Healy, "Science Now," Los Angeles Times, 6/8; Chen, "Shots," NPR, 6/8).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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