Can Creative Genius Lead to Madness?

Every strength has a flip side, as my mother always says. The same communication trait that makes it easy for me to write volumes of words also means that, at times, I talk an awful lot. Someone driven to excel may also drive everyone around them nuts with their singular focus. A tendency to take bold risks can lead to astounding success ... or reckless disaster. And according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science, that interconnected relationship between strength and weakness may exist in the field of creativity, as well--in the rather scary form of an actual genetic link between high levels of creativity and mental illness.

The idea that highly creative people have more than their share of depression, alcoholism, and other psychological issues or struggles is not new, and anecdotal examples are legion. Van Gogh cut off his ear and suffered depressing visions before finally committing suicide. The writer David Foster Wallace (who gave such a sharp, witty, irreverent and highly memorable commencement address to Kenyon College graduates in 2005 that the Wall Street Journal even saw fit to reprint it) committed suicide last year at the age of 46. Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of other writers, artists, and creative individuals have also taken their own lives. And that doesn't even get into the much larger group who created wonderful works of art and brilliance even as they battled serious and debilitating depression or other problems.

There are also numerous examples of more technically-inclined geniuses who have struggled with demons of madness. A new graphic novel/comic book called Logicomix delves into the world of the real-life mathematicians who relentlessly pursued a quest for logical certainty in mathematics throughout the 20th century. (A New York Times review of it can be found here.) One of the book's themes, aside from the pursuit of logical perfection, is the mathematicians' struggles to ward off mental illness. One of the logicians, Bertrand Russell, apparently claimed that it was only his love of mathematics that saved him from suicide--although two of his children developed schizophrenia and killed themselves. Another logician, Georg Cantor, died in an insane asylum, and a third, Kurt Godel, became so paranoid about being poisoned that he starved himself to death.

What causes these brilliant, creative minds to fall into such dark places? Does obsession with an idea--a common trait in those driven to pursue its exploration and expression, whether in words or formulas--somehow disconnect us with an important perspective or grounding that a more balanced focus provides? Or are brilliantly artistic or creative people actually predisposed to mental illness?

Possibly the latter, according to just-published research conducted by Hungarian psychiatrist Szabolcs Keri. (You can access the Psychological Science article here, although there's a charge to view it.) In order to explore a possible genetic link between creativity and psychosis, Keri focused his research on the T/T variant of the Neuregulin 1 gene. Neuregulin 1 plays a role in a variety of brain processes, including development and strengthening communication between neurons. But the T/T variant of the gene has also been associated with a greater risk for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Keri's research study was admittedly limited. He interviewed 128 study participants, all of whom had "high intellectual and academic performance." The group was divided by genotypes (variants) into three groups: T/T, C/T, and C/C. Keri found no difference in the groups on the basis of gender or IQ. But he found a distinct difference when it came to scores on creativity tests. The T/T group scored significantly higher in terms of creativity; almost twice as high as the C/C group in some categories.

Why would the T/T group score so much higher on creativity? It may be that the "reduced cognitive inhibition" associated with that variant allows for more creative mental wanderings in more ways than one. A terrific imagination can also lead to terrific nightmares. But what I found particularly interesting was Keri's thought on why the species would retain a gene variant that caused such big problems. According to Darwin, after all, a gene variant that led to debilitating disorders should die out. And yet, the T/T gene variant persists.

"Why are genetic polymorphisms related to severe mental disorders retained in the gene pool of a population?" Keri asked. "A possible answer is that these genetic variations may have a positive impact on psychological function."

The sword, in other words, might have two sides. Creativity is good for advancing the species, even if it sometimes leads to madness. That kind of evolutionary trade-off also doesn't seem to be unique to the neuregulin 1 gene. Research published this past June by John McDonald, chair of the Biology department at Georgia Tech and chief research scientist at the Ovarian Cancer Institute, raised the possibility that the same characteristic that allowed human brains to develop so much bigger and faster than other primates may also be the reason human cells are more susceptible to cancer.

"The results from our analysis suggest that humans aren't as efficient as chimpanzees in carrying out programmed cell death. We believe this difference may have evolved as a way to increase brain size and associated cognitive ability in humans, but the cost could be an increased propensity for cancer," McDonald was quoted as saying.

In a ideal world, the strengths could be separated from the weaknesses, and a perfect species could evolve. But the same law of unintended consequences that plagues so many advances we make, from increased longevity leading to overpopulation problems and antibiotics creating super-resistant bacteria to computer-controlled systems becoming more vulnerable to viruses and hackers ... may be just a continuation of a dichotomy that's been playing out in our DNA for centuries. Our strengths create potential vulnerabilities. There is a dark side to The Force.

A military person would call this phenomenon a "reverse salient." A practictioner of Taoism would say it's the balance of yin and yang. My mother would simply say it's the way of the world. But if these researchers' hypotheses are correct, it means that growth and creativity are important enough to the species that nature has decided they're worth even the ravages of cancer and mental illness to preserve. And that, itself, is a thought worth pondering. 

(Photo: Flickr/Eddi 07)