“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.