Throughout history, humans have associated creativity and madness. There's something about the ability to see the world in a whole new way that we associate with both artists and those who have lost a grip on reality.
In a study published June 8 in Nature Neuroscience, researchers say they have now found genetic variants that can predict both creativity and a predisposition towards schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
According to the paper, other researchers have found that a higher percentage of people with bipolar disorder are found in creative professions than in the general population and that writers are more likely to receive a diagnosis for psychiatric disorders than other professionals.
But they write that this is the first time researchers have investigated whether or not the genetic variants that we might think of as negative, because they're associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are also the same variants that predict creativity, something we think of as good, as it indicates that people are able to come up with new solutions to problems that other people wouldn't think of.
The authors decided to pursue this line of questioning because some of their prior research has shown that healthy people who carry genetic markers for schizophrenia show cognitive differences from other "normal" people — the same sorts of cognitive differences that may explain why schizophrenia patients are better than normal people at logical deduction tasks that conflict with "practical reasoning."
They found their gene variants by looking at two large studies looking at the roots of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in people's genomes, their genetic blueprints. Then the researchers looked at the genetic information for 86,292 people in Iceland.
The same genetic risk factors that double people's risk for schizophrenia and increase the chances of bipolar disorder by almost 50% were also about 25% more common among creative professionals and people in national societies for writers, dancers, musicians, actors, and artists.
Still, there are reasons to be cautious about these results — don't go assuming that your crazy college musician friend is just a few steps away from losing it.
The genetic connection the researchers found was significant but very small. As Dr. David Cutler, an assistant professor of human genetics at Emory points out in comments provided to the Genetic Experts News Service, "many, many genes — perhaps even most of the genome — are involved" in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, psychiatric illnesses that we are still far from understanding.
"These genes must do lots and lots and lots things other than simply contribute to those diseases," says Cutler. "We can conclude that genes involved in schizophrenia and bipolar are probably broadly involved in all sorts of neurological and cognitive function including, but surely not limited to, cognitive functions related to artistic endeavors."
Cutler says "if you distance between me (the least artistic person you are going to meet) and an actual artist is 1 mile, these variants appear to collectively explain 13 feet of that distance." In other words, we're still far from a full genomic understanding of creativity and psychiatric disorder.
Plus, membership in a creative society or employment in a creative profession doesn't encompass all creative people. While these societies and professions are most likely filled with a greater percentage of the creative public than other groups, they're not going to capture all creative elements of society.
But studies like this, even if their results are small, play a hugely important role in areas of research that we're just starting to scratch the surface of. We understand almost nothing about the human brain, including psychiatric illness. And we've mapped the human genome but are just starting to understand what it all means.
Research like this is the start of understanding what our genomic blueprint actually means. It'll take time, but studies like this can build on other studies of the genome and contribute bit by bit until we have a full understanding of diseases like schizophrenia — and perhaps a full understanding of creativity.
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