The link between creativity – even genius – and mental disorder has been a matter of speculation for centuries, but a Swedish university may have already answered this age-old question. Proving – or disproving – such a link has been discussed and attempted , off and on, as far back as the ancient Greeks. The fictional idea of the mad scientist, the brilliant, but demented, James Bond Super-villain or the serial killer with a mind like a steel trap has captured the imagination as much as real artists, musicians, writers and others who have been known, or commonly thought, to be both a genius and at least a little crazy.
The serial killer of popular fiction is often portrayed as brilliant, sophisticated and well-read, like Hannibal Lecter from The Silence Of The Lambs or American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman. The truth, however, is that serial killers have scored all over the chart in I.Q. tests. According to the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC), serial killers range in intelligence “from borderline to above average levels.”
The evil genius of both fiction and reality has been a popular obsession going back a long way. Convincing arguments have been presented, from time to time, that either support or dismiss the idea that there is any actual link between mental disorder and creativity. This age-old question, however, may have been answered in 2005, at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. Studies conducted there on the human brain revealed that dopamine levels in highly creative individuals are similar to those found in people suffering from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Additionally, Schizophenics and highly creative people share the trait of tending to make unusual associations, when presented with information; as Dr. Frederick Ullen, an Associate Professor with the Swedish institute, said, “Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box.”
The study suggested that information flowing into the area of the brain that deals with cognition and reasoning is filtered less in the brains of both creative people and schizophrenics. In most human beings, incoming information passes through the thalamus and is filtered by dopamine D2 receptors. Fewer receptors, it was assumed, leads to a flow of information that is both greater and less filtered – leading to both highly creative people and those suffering from schizophrenia to make connections that can be described as uncommon or even bizarre.
A University of Toronto study, concluded in 2003, also suggested that creative people have lower levels of “latent inhibition” meaning, basically, that the information reaching their brain has been less filtered for relevance. With more information available that normal brains would have filtered as not being specific enough, highly creative people are able perceive connections that most other people cannot. Individuals who were showing signs of developing mental illness shared this condition. Certainly, when one examines the lives of many famous artists, there is much evidence to suggest that a disproportionate number suffered from one or other of the many illnesses generally classed under the label of mental disorder. Another study has shown that children who were considered a high risk for developing bipolar disorder score disproportionately higher on tests that were designed to measure artistic creativity.
James Fallon, from the University of California-Irvine, has described similarities in brain function between creatively-inspired people and those suffering from bipolar mood swings. He pointed out that victims of bipolar disorder tent to be creative when they emerging from a deep depression. “When a bipolar patient’s mood improves, his brain activity shifts, too,” Fallon says. “Activity dies down in the lower part of a brain region called the frontal lobe, and flares up in a higher part of that lobe.” He explained, adding “Amazingly, the very same shift happens when people have bouts of creativity.”
An alternative theory explains the connection between creative genius and mental disorder as being more likely attributed to artists being given to introspection and self-analysis which, in turn, may explain why they are more susceptible to depression of other psychological conditions. The very ability of the highly-creative person to draw conclusions that most would consider unconventional is what contributes to their inability to “fit in” with “normal” society and, therefore, be a candidate for mental illness.
Did the Karolinska Institutet study answer that age-old question? Are Moriarty, Hannibal Lecter and Goldfinger more than just intriguing fictional devices, thanks to a biological anomaly or, perhaps, is it the very way the creative genius tends to think – and live – that makes him or her more prone to mental instability? It is, truly, the metaphorical chicken and egg dilemma; does mental disorder facilitate creativity or does creativity lead, potentially, to mental disorder?
Editorial by Graham J Noble