The American musician and comedian Oscar Levant may have been onto something when he said “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.” Levant, who wrote the humorously titled Memoirs of an Amnesiac, may have been playing on an old cliché about madness and creativity, but he was not entirely joking when he quipped that he erased the line between the two. He actually did spend periods of his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals.
A recent article in The Atlantic by psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Nancy Andreasen explores the link between creative genius and mental illness with some interesting conclusions: Secrets of the Creative Brain
Andreasen was responsible for a famous 1980’s study of distinguished University of Iowa Writers Workshop faculty, which included Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Yates, John Cheever, and 27 other well-known authors. Although the subjects were of average IQ (100-120 points), they were all famously creative people. To her surprise, Andreasen discovered in the course of the study that 80 percent of them also had some kind of mood disturbance at some time in their lives, compared with just 30 percent of the non-creative control group.
In a later study still in progress, Andreasen conducts magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) on famously creative people from the sciences and arts while they engage in simple experimental tasks, such as word and picture association. She has a theory that creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way, that others do not recognize. Her MRI and earlier PET experiments are an attempt to locate and map those associations in the brain.
Regarding the link to mental illness, Andreasen has speculated that highly creative people may owe their gifts to a variant of schizophrenia that loosens their associations enough to enhance creativity, but not enough to lose touch with reality. “Having too many ideas can be dangerous. Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all of these connections actually exist.” Think of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash Jr. who made several significant contributions to game theory and differential geometry, but also believed he was in communication with aliens from outer space.
Schizophrenia, like some other mental illnesses, is now thought to develop out of a combination of biogenetic factors and environmental triggers. It is interesting to speculate on the creative paths people might take if those triggers could be avoided or removed. Hopefully science will one day yield the answers to make this possible.
For more on the neuroscience of the creative brain, check out Nancy Anderson’s newest book:
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