Schizophrenia & Creativity

Schizophrenia & Creativity

The brains of healthy creative people share some similarities with those of schizophrenic patients.


Creativity and schizophrenia. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

People with schizophrenia tend to have creative relatives. Now, researchers at the Karolinksa Institutet in Sweden may have found a reason why. Neuroscientist Orjan de Manzano and his colleagues studied the brains of healthy volunteers. The more creative ones tended to have less densely packed dopamine receptors, called D2, in a part of the brain called the thalamus.

De Manzano:
And this pattern, or configuration of receptors, is exactly what has been found in the majority of studies on patients with schizophrenia.

De Manzano says the D2 system filters information, and controls output to the brain's higher thought centers. A weak filter may cause bizarre, delusional thinking in schizophrenic patients. But in its benign form, it may help people connect seemingly unrelated ideas, which is central to the creative process. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

The link between creativity and mental illness reaches far back in history, long before modern psychiatry had formal names and diagnoses for depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other conditions. Many famous writers, artists, and musicians are believed to have suffered from some kind of mental illness. 

Because schizophrenia—a mental illness which causes disorganized and paranoid thinking, as well as hallucinations, hearing voices, and other delusions—is so serious, and strikes people at a relatively young age, it's much more of a hindrance to being creatively productive than some other mental illnesses. However, healthy people in creative professions are more likely to have family members with schizophrenia than less creative people, suggesting some kind of genetic or biological link between the two. 

This study looked at similarities between schizophrenia and creativity from a neurological standpoint. The researchers gave healthy volunteers a standardized test of creativity. Then they separated them into two groups: those who scored higher on the creativity scale, and those who scored lower. They compared brain scans of the high-creative and low-creative groups. Overall, the creative types differed from the less creative types in noticeable and statistically significant ways, particularly in the density of one type of receptor for a brain chemical called dopamine, D2 receptors, in a part of the brain called the thalamus. Creative people had less densely packed D2 receptors in the thalamus than less creative people. And although patients with schizophrenia were not included in this study, schizophrenic patients are known to have less densely packed D2 receptors than healthy people.

So, creative brains look like schizophrenic brains in this respect—but what does this mean? That can't be answered from this study, but the researchers note that it's the D2 system's job to filter information that comes into the brain through all of our senses. With a weak filter, they suggest, we may be more prone to make strange and unusual associations between seemingly unrelated things—which could result in great art, or, taken just a step further, in serious mental illness. Why some people with this brain profile develop schizophrenia and others don't remains to be seen. There may be another factor involved, either biological or environmental, that pushes the brain from creativity to insanity.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. Why did the researchers conduct this study? What was already known about the link between schizophrenia and creativity?
  2. The study included only healthy people. How, then, did they link the brain profile of creative people to schizophrenic patients?
  3. Why might making unusual associations help creativity? Can you think of a movie, song, painting, or other work of art that made a surprising association?

You may want to check out the June 18, 2010, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: researchers test a smoking vaccine, the relationship between schizophri\enia and creativity, and post-partum depression in men.

Going Further

For Educators

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