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A Connection Between Creativity and Insanity?

Here is some interesting information I found on the link between creativity and insanity.

A study at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee has found that people known as "schizotypes" may be able to function normally and still have enhanced creativity due to their schizophrenic tendencies. It seems that their greater creativity comes from using more of the right side of the brain than most of us use. They seem to be able to walk that proverbial fine line between insanity and genius.

Schizotypes are generally considered somewhere between normal and insane. They often have their own unique eccentricities, but not the more extreme symptoms of schizophrenics, such as hallucinations and paranoia. They may think in unusual ways, dress differently, and have odd routines.

The evidence of a link between creativity and mental illness has mostly been anecdotal in the past, although there have been some studies showing correlation. The Vanderbilt study, on the other hand, used brain-imaging technology to look at the creative process. They started with a definition of creativity as the ability to create something new from existing things and ideas, and did two experiments to look at and compare what was going on in the brains of schizotypes, schizophrenics and normal control subjects.

For example, subjects were asked to think of uses for a needle and thread. Both the normal subjects and the schizophrenic ones had fairly mundane ideas, such as sewing. On the other hand, one schizotype suggested that a poor person could use the thread to a ring for his fiancée, or use the needle to write "I love you" in sand.

There was a marked tendency for the schizotypes to have more creative ideas. This was also true in the second experiment, when the groups were again asked to think of creative ways to use household objects. This time, however, all subjects had their brains monitored. Researchers used a brain-imaging technology called near-infrared optical spectroscopy.

The brain scans showed that all subjects used both sides of the brain when coming up with creative ideas. But the activity was much higher in the brain's right hemisphere in the schizotypes. Whether they have greater access to that hemisphere or more efficient communication between the two sides isn't clear. What is clear is that they are thinking differently than the general population.

Note: This study on the link between insanity and creative thinking was reported in 2005 on LiveScience.com, and was detailed in the journal Schizophrenia Research.

Most Recent Update

A Science Daily article on creative people reports on more recent research. Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden found that highly creative people have a dopamine system which is similar to that of people with schizophrenia. The article says that those people identified as highly creative are more likely to have a family history of mental illness. It hasn't been clear why this is true, but Fredrik Ullén of the Karolinska Institutet's Department of Women's and Children's Health suggests that it has something to do with the function of the dopamine systems in the brain, and points out that other studies have shown that a people's dopamine receptor genes are linked to their ability for divergent thought (which is generally considered to be a measure of creativity).

Doctor Ullén says, "The study shows that highly creative people who did well on the divergent tests had a lower density of D2 receptors in the thalamus than less creative people... Schizophrenics are also known to have low D2 density in this part of the brain, suggesting a cause of the link between mental illness and creativity." He added, "Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box."


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