Creativity meets mental illness

An article popped up in my Google Alerts:

A study of the medical records of 150,000 individuals has found that the relatives of patients diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are more likely than the general public to be creative professionals such as actors, dancers, musicians, visual artists or writers.

The researchers cannot be sure whether the link is due to the shared genes of the family relatives or a shared upbringing and environment, but they suggested that it could be explained by similarities in the way the brain works in creative people and in patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

This isn’t really news. Yes, a study of 150 thousand people is more significant than a smaller scale one, but it’s been known for a long time that creativity and mental illness go together. The article explains further:

The researchers looked for the same DNA variations in the genomes of 1,000 members of Icelandic national societies representing visual artists, actors, dancers, musicians and writers and found that these creative professionals were 17 per cent more likely than non-members to carry the same genetic variants. […]

This revealed that members of the creative professions were 25 per cent more likely than other professions to carry the DNA variants linked with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. […]

“The results of this study should not have come as a surprise because to be creative you have to think differently from the crowd and we had previously shown that carriers of genetic factors that predispose to schizophrenia do so,” said Dr Stefansson, the leader of the study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Dr Stefansson is correct, of course. Creativity is all about exploring the unexplored. The study, though, still fails to identify whether creative people are more prone to mental illness, or whether mentally ill people are more likely to be creative. It shows correlation, but not causation.

Not all of us bipolars are creative, and not all creatives are bipolar. This is something that I feel should be emphasised. You can be bipolar and completely uncreative, you can be creative and free of mental illness. The correlation is significant, but 25 per cent is still not all that much. According to DBSA, bipolar affects approx. 2.6% of adult US population. 25 per cent more than that is 3.25%. It’s a noticeable, yet unimportant difference.

Kay Redfield Jamison explores the correlation between BP and artistic temperament in her book “Touched By Fire”. I admit I haven’t finished reading it, as it largely consisted of quotes from possibly affected artists and writers. I happen to be a creative person, and not just because I wrote “Bipolar For Beginners”. The realisation that my creativity is linked to my bipolar disorder doesn’t enrich my life or help me deal with the illness. Ultimately it’s an interesting factoid that might one day lead somewhere – I would love to find a medication cocktail that kills off mood swings, but leaves creativity intact. The new study could help with it, but there is still a long, long way to go until we arrive at the end of the rainbow.

Photo: “Abstract Painting – Olivia” by Ann (CC 2.0)

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