From John Nash to Vincent Van Gogh to Sylvia Plath, madness and creativity seem to go hand in hand. Scientists have long tried to study this popular connection between great artists and thinkers, though they've yet to figure out why the link exists. But now, researchers finally have some new insight: genetics.
The potential nexus between madness and creativity has been a controversial matter since Shakespeare's time, and it remains so today. Still, while the creative among us don't all suffer mental illness—and while a person with mental illness isn't necessarily that creative—there is some suggestive evidence of a connection, particularly among writers.
What's behind that link, however, is much less clear. Perhaps schizophrenia, for example, shares with artistic creativity a sort of freedom from practical reasoning. That is, both involve perceiving the world in novel, even delusional ways, whether literally or figuratively. But even if that's an accurate description, it leaves open a key question: Is the link a product of genetics, environment, or something else altogether?
Those at the 80th percentile of schizophrenia risk scores were about twice as likely to suffer from the disease compared with the average person.
Kari Stefansson and colleagues representing a dozen universities in Europe and the United States took a multi-pronged approach to answering that question. First, using data on more than 150,000 people outside Iceland, they constructed formulas known as polygenic risk scores, which analyze a person's entire DNA sequence to determine the likelihood he or she has schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
To validate the method, the team next computed risk scores for 86,292 Icelanders, finding that higher scores were indeed associated with a greater risk of mental illness. For instance, those at the 80th percentile of schizophrenia risk scores were about twice as likely to suffer from the disease compared with the average person—exactly as expected.
The real surprise was that risk scores had something to say about creativity, too—specifically, membership in national societies for actors, dancers, musicians, visual artists, and writers. Icelanders with 80th-percentile polygenic risk scores for either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder were 17 percent more likely to be a member of one of those societies than those with average scores—a difference that couldn't be explained by factors such as education or general intelligence. A similar study of 18,452 Dutch and 8,893 Swedish citizens found that those with high risk scores were 23 percent more likely to be artists of some kind.
"[C]reativity, conferred at least in part by common genetic variants, comes with an increased risk of psychiatric disorders conferred by the same genetic variants," the researchers write in Nature Neuroscience, though how the genetic connection arose in the first place "remains to be determined."
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