Creativity and madness: are they linked?

Mary Beth Gardiner
Published: November, 2003

Biologists with an evolutionary bent observe that schizophrenia must be adaptive in some way or it would have been eliminated by now. Some theorists suggest that there is a creative element associated with schizophrenia that ensures the disorder stays in our genome.

Schizophrenia has affected a number of well-known artists or their relatives, including Russian dancer and choreographer Vaslov Njinsky; painter, writer, and dancer Zelda Fitzgerald; artist and dancer, Lucia Joyce, daughter of writer James Joyce; and author and pediatrician, Mark Vonnegut, son of writer Kurt Vonnegut.

“I’m really interested in looking at this link between creativity and madness that people have alluded to for thousands of years,” says Sohee Park, Ph.D., professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Vanderbilt. “Studying relatives of those with schizophrenia and other schizotypal people—those who have elevated symptoms but who will probably never be ill—we’ve been finding that the schizotypal subjects are much more creative than normal individuals.”

In interviewing schizotypal individuals, predoctoral student Brad Folley has collected striking examples of creative thinking. When asked what a person would do with a bowl, cup, napkin, and fork, one individual answered, “You could use the fork to shred the napkin to use as confetti in a parade.” Another, when presented with a needle and thread, said, “If you were romantic but poor, you could write ‘I love you’ in the sand with the needle, make a ring out of the thread, and propose to your girlfriend.”

Folley has developed a three-factor model for defining creativity, encompassing divergent thinking, creative problem solving, and practical creativity (an example might be cooking a meal without recipe or measurement).

“Using that estimate of creativity as our dependent variable, we think we can compare individuals in terms of brain function and structure,” says Folley.

With Adam Anderson, Ph.D., in the Vanderbilt Institute of Imaging Science, Folley is using an advanced imaging technique called Diffusion Tensor Imaging to study connectivity in the brain. “Because creative people make more connections between ideas,” he says, “we think we’ll find more connections in the brain, too.”


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