Saturday, October 10, 2009

Creative fire

“No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.” Aristotle.

Kay Redfield Jamison, Johns Hopkins University, analyzed the mental health of forty seven of England's most highly honoured poets, novelists, playwrights, artists and biographers. More than a third had diagnosed mental-health problems, thirty times higher than the norm. Fascinatingly, while a third of creative writers, such as poets or novelists, showed mood-swing problems this was not the case in factual writers, such as biographers.

Scientists do not seem to be as prone to mental illness as do other creative people and it has been speculated that this is because of the more rigid nature of scientific research, which requires at least some measure of stability and predictability. As a professional research scientist, I would point out that the word ‘scientist’ covers a multitude of jobs from routine technical to strategic research. Having worked in elite research institutes, I find the figure of one third having mood-swing illnesses about right for creative scientists.

Mood-swing mental illness covers a range of disorder including depression, maniac-depressive cycles, bipolarism and even possibly schizophrenia. Self-harm and suicides are also symptoms. So do you have to be mad to be creative? Is it the madness that drives creativity?

The answer to that appears to be yes and no. First of all it is quite clear that mood-swing disorders are found in certain families and that creativity is found in the same families so there is a genetic correlation. Also, children born of older parents are more likely to suffer mood swings. To a biologist that suggests that genetic mutation is involved.

This has been confirmed by modern molecular biology research. There is much yet to discover but it is becoming clear that mood-swing disorders are connected to a complex mix of mutations in genes that influence brain function. For example, a recent Russian paper reported an analysis of 62 unrelated Caucasian students. They found a significant correlation between verbal and spatial creativity scores and polymorphism (variation, mutation) in the 5-HTT gene. This gene impacts serotonin neurotransmission indicating the connection between serotonin and creativity. And SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) are a common treatment for mood disorders.

So, to go back to my original question - do you have to be mad to be creative? The answer really is yes and no. Mood disorders and creativity are both the result of certain complex combinations of gene mutation. Creative people who show no sign of mood disorders are statistically likely to have relative who are sufferers. Deeply mentally ill people such as schizophrenics are often too ill to be creative.

So far, I have only looked at the biochemistry and it is quite a jump to trying to understand how variations in neurotransmitter performance raise creativity. I would speculate that it is connected to how well the model of reality in your head that you perceive is more or less bound to the actual reality, which you can not perceive. Schizophrenics, for example, seem unable to distinguish between the outside world and their internal voices and I would suggest that fiction writers dance to internal voices as well.

The creative mutations have fixed at about five percent of the population suggesting that a ratio of one creative in twenty gives the optimum advantage between the upside of creativity and the downside of madness. And it is creativity that separated our species, Homo sapiens, from other primates and hominids. Our very name means ‘wise man’. In our madness we created abstract art and fashion, spear throwers and bows.

Our species has been scorched by the fire of creativity. It remains to be seen how long we can dance in the flames without getting burnt.

John Lambshead


C Kelsey said...

I would submit that those who are our most celebrated creative geniuses are already burned by this fire. Van Gogh and the cutting of the ear, etc.

Do these genetic variations perhaps do something to that modeling mechanism in the brain that then leads to a hyper active simulation environment? Perhaps the mental illness hampers everything in normal life but provides a simulation supercomputer.

Odd analogy. Great post John.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Chris

It may be something to do with the breakdown of compartmentalisation so you get more cross connectivity. We don't understand the brain at all though.

My personal thought (I have mood swing disorder) is that it is to do with a disasscociation of the model in one's head from reality. We all don't see the real world; we see a model.

Creatives seem to drift away from reality (daydream) easier.

It's a hell of a puzzle that biology has barely begun to tackle. Even when we understand the biochemistry we won't understand how this works.


Kate said...

It's an interesting subject, and we've barely scratched the surface, I think. There's multiple levels, or facets, or aspects of creativity: the ability to see connections between apparently unrelated things, the ability to see possibilities where most people see either nothing of interest or just problems, and a bunch of other things.

Intelligence isn't exactly well understood, either. There's an awareness that there is a raw capacity, but it's hugely malleable and can be enhanced - or damaged - by the environment (i.e. the culture, family, physical living space etc).

As for mental illness, the understanding is still very much at "if we do this, that happens." It's only recently been discovered that serotonin also acts to regulate appetite and weight control - but that regulation seems to be triggered to reuptake, where mood seems linked to in-brain concentrations. Hm. Maybe this explains why every antidepressant piles on the weight?

At the same time, most kids are effortlessly imaginative. So maybe it's not a case of "not everyone has it" but that the conformity requirements of living close to other people (which we need) diminish the ability to be creative? Or - more likely - a combination of all that.

One thing that does seem to be more or less constant is that those with higher intelligence have an easier time managing the creative "unmooring" from reality - possibly there's some minimum level that has to be present to control the extremes?

I know for myself I had to decide that I had to live in the reality my body was attached to. The worlds inside my head weren't real in that they had no physical manifestation I could reach, and if I didn't control myself and my time with them, Bad Things would happen.

Bad things still happen, of course, but at least they're not happening in the locked ward of a mental hospital ;-)

Anonymous said...

Symbolic thinking and creativity are the inner part of the great leap mankind took 30 or 40 thousand years ago. Suddenly instead of thousands of years of stasis between stair step advances, tool making changed and kept changing, we started drawing pictures of animals and carving idealized figures.

I think the mutation(s) loosened up some of the hard-wiring in our brains. The incredible advantages that that creativity and the ability to visualize and plan out something that has never existed triumphed all the associated negatives. _If_ there's evolutionary pressure against the worst effects, the genes that compensate for the problems will spread.

Which all circles back to the tough time the functionally creative person has making a living being creative.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

John, this is a fascinating topic.

Thanks for posting about it. Loved reading everyone's comments on the topic.

Dave Freer said...

I'm sane. It's the rest of humanity who are mad.

Which as usual is Dave speaking in riddles instead of sensibly. With the exception of some of the far extremes... do we actually know what sanity is anyway? At the most conservative you could define at leat 1/3 of our actions illogical and irrational. Being me I'd put that a lot higher. We're a species who to paraphrase CS Lewis's Puddleglum are happier dying believing in our own illusions of reality, than living in reality. As for the moods... being happy all the time may be pleasant - but is it evolutionarily sensible? Sadly no.
Dave stirring the pot as usual.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Kate

Biologists hate the word intelligence because it has so many meanings and no firm definition. In zoology it tends to equate to complexity of behavior, while in sociology it seems to be identical to academic ability as defined by our educational system and hence a pointless measure.

Creativity does seem to be divorced from academic ability. I have supervised PhD students who were academically bright but who could not be research scientists as they lacked creativity. Similarly you get creative car mechanics, plumbers etc who show imaginative reactions to problems but are quite unacademic.


Anonymous said...

I just read an article in Science News about how to measure mental health, and arguing that 60% of the population has had at least one instance of mental illness.

This makes me think that their base line is incorrect. As Dave says, happy all the time isn't good either. I think the normal range is much too constricted.

Normal? Umm, would I recognize the state? I'd probably think something was wrong.

John Lambshead said...

dear Matapan

Our species is very new, 2.5 to 5 hundred thousand years bp. However, the first sign of creativity is a piece of abstract art from South Africa dated about 70,000 yrs bp.

It is suspicious that the Toba event that damn near wiped out our species was about 70-75,000 years ago. We were bottlenecked down to 1-10,000 breeding pairs causing gene mutation to be a real problem that still effects us.

It is possible that creative fire is the result of Toba.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Matapan,
Mood swing disorder affects about 1-5 % of the population. We mean a real long-term problem. That 60% refers to short term problems.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Kate,

We are in the realm of epigentics here, which is horrendously complex.


Kate said...


When it comes to intelligence, I tend to go with the completely unscientific but useful thumbnail of "raw computing power". How said raw computing power is applied, whether to academic pursuits, plumbing, whatever, isn't relevant.

What I've seen is that those with low power (i.e. the intellectually handicapped) have very little, if any ability to generalize. There's a threshold where generalization cuts in - although some conditions, like Aspergers and high function autism seem to prevent generalization developing. There seems to be another threshold past which you get the polymaths and - to use another horribly overused and imprecise word - geniuses who are able to cross-pollinate across a wide range of domains. The extreme cases of creativity and mental illness seem also to land in this bucket, for the most part.

Whether those people have gone anywhere academically depends more on the opportunities and encouragement they got - and their patience with academic hoop-jumping - than their ability.

Just stirring the pot a bit more.

WangZheng259 said...


My family has mood disorders, and, I think, creativity. I do not have a mood disorder, but do have other neurological issues. I do think I am fairly creative.

I think partly in intuitive flashes, but another part involves constructing mental models of anything of interest. I may have several competing models for any given aspect of the real world. I also use models for processing how my fictional settings work. I am pretty clear about which ones could and which ones could not, to the best of my knowledge, describe the real world. I do not know very well how to describe these models, or how I make use of them. Building them is something I have and will continue to put much effort into.

I believe that there are many different ways of thinking. Each person has one or some, or however you want to classify it. I do not have any idea of how to go about measuring this. Each way of thinking will be good at different things. It may be that there is some sort of statistical distribution that describes occurance in populations, or something entirely different may be involved. If there is a way or ways of thinking that is or are substantially more common, then the problems they are suited for will be well understood, and the solutions common knowledge. In such an environment, a genius would either need one unusual way of thinking, or many usual ways, in order to solve problems that are outside the scope of prior art.

Intelligence would make problem solving faster and quicker, and would be more important for the rarer mental approaches. People with shared mental approaches might find it easier to split the load, and brute force the solution, making intelligence, however defined, less vital.

Some types of mild mental illness may be the result of ways of thinking that produce abnormally flawed solutions to certain types of problem.

I suspect culture also plays a role.

I am fairly poor at understanding social niceties, expressing my thoughts verbally, asethetics, or when it is time for me to shut up. I am good at way overthinking an issue, coming at it from many unusual angles,

I've heard that some of the autism stuff appears to have a correlation with Biploar and such, often being found in the same families. One possible mechanism being discussed for some of the autism cases is a malfunction of the mitochondria.

Regarding the closing sentence of your post: If being 'burned' does not consist of human extinction or removal of the creative alleles (assuming a genetic cause) from the population, I would submit that we have already been burned many times. If it does, I would submit that being 'burned' is so difficult a thing to accomplish that we will most probably have a very long time before it occurs.

Nitpick: My understanding is that Bipolar is Manic-Depressive cycles.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Thank you for the information. I wonder if being creative is a kind of therapy. When I have periods I'm not very creative, I'm feeling miserable - but I'm not sure which way the causation goes.

Chris McMahon said...

Great post, John. Sorry I missed it.