It’s a popular notion. The lone artist – shunning the world and creating a masterpiece. All while descending into madness. It is a story told in history books to movies.

What if there was a link between mental illness and creativity? A new study is laying claim to finding that link.

Researchers in Iceland published a large study that examined the genetic factors that raise the risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The claim is creative professionals, such as musicians, painters, writers and dancers are 25 percent more likely to carry these genetic markers.

Professions that are considered less creative, judged by the researchers, were found less likely to carry the genetic marker. These include salespeople, construction workers and farmers.

I don’t know; a person in sales can be damn creative. And persistent. Did I mention persistent? A farmer can fool us all on a John Deere and a ton of free time. Crop circles… The construction crew? I don’t see a musician throwing up a house in record time.

Defining creativity is subjective as hell. No, this isn’t one of those everyone gets a ribbon. A person’s creativity is judged in shades of complexity. And most of whom we deem creative geniuses is with hindsight. The ‘mad artist’ gets the lede in history books and it compounds from there.

Creativity and Mental Illness Study

The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, was led by Kari Stefansson. He is also the CEO of deCODE, a genetics company located in Reykjavik, Iceland. Pulling medical data from more than 86,000 Icelanders, the team was able to find the genetic markers that raise the risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Researchers focused on the genetic variants that raise the risk of developing bipolar disorder by a third, and variants that double the risk of schizophrenia. The team then compared the data with members of national arts societies – writing, painting, etc. The result was a 17 percent increase over non-members.

mental illness and creativity

Using databases in Sweden and the Netherlands, the deCODE team was able to compare results with other populations. The 35,000 people considered creative were 25 percent more likely to carry the mental illness, or disorder, genetic variants.

Weak Link

This study will get the headlines of ‘Creativity and Mental Illness Linked,’ etc. In truth, the authors of the study are quick to point out just how weak the link is. Stefansson concedes the weakness of the link, and the study shows the genetic factors alter artistic variation in people by 0.25 percent.

David Cutler, a geneticist at Emory University, put it in perspective speaking to the Guardian.

“If the distance between me, the least artistic person you are going to meet, and an actual artist is one mile, these variants appear to collectively explain 13 feet of the distance.”

I think that’s the researcher version of dropping the mic.

For Stefansson, the study’s conclusion is still fascinating. “It means that a lot of the good things we get in life, through creativity, come at a price. It tells me that when it comes to our biology, we have to understand that everything is in some way good and in some way bad.”

It is a fascinating read. Context brings it back to reality. A person belonging to society for creative professionals doesn’t make one necessarily creative. People have a tendency to stack memberships for all sorts of reason.

And there’s stacking the deck. Mental hospitals use art therapy heavily in both outpatient and inpatient care. Patients exit the treatment programs attracted to the arts. They look for jobs in various creative fields, not because of skill, but out of attraction.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t creative geniuses with a mental illness. However, it skews the dataset heavily and makes an already admitted weak link that much weaker.

Yes, Van Gogh was more than a little ‘off.’ Lord Byron famously associated being crazy with creativity: “We of the craft are all crazy.”

Way to toss your fellow poets under the bus.


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