Mental Illness Fosters Creativity?

We’ve all suspected that highly creative people suffer from a higher incidence of mental illness – Vincent Van Gogh, Sir Isaac Newton, Vivien Leigh, Abraham Lincoln, Virginia Woolf, Shawn Colvin, Charles Schultz, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Michelangelo, Charles Dickens, Bette Midler…the list goes on and on.

Now there’s a study out suggesting why that might be the case:

High creative skills have been shown to be somewhat more common in people who have mental illness in the family. Creativity is also linked to a slightly higher risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Certain psychological traits, such as the ability to make unusual pr bizarre associations are also shared by schizophrenics and healthy, highly creative people. And now the correlation between creativity and mental health has scientific backing.

“We have studied the brain and the dopamine D2 receptors, and have shown that the dopamine system of healthy, highly creative people is similar to that found in people with schizophrenia,” says associate professor Fredrik Ullén from Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Women’s and Children’s Health.

Just which brain mechanisms are responsible for this correlation is still something of a mystery, but Dr Ullén conjectures that the function of systems in the brain that use dopamine is significant; for example, studies have shown that dopamine receptor genes are linked to ability for divergent thought. Dr Ullén’s study measured the creativity of healthy individuals using divergent psychological tests, in which the task was to find many different solutions to a problem.

You can read more here.

In summary:

“Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box,” says Dr Ullén about his new findings.


  1. May 19, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Joshua Schlinsky, kellycart. kellycart said: Mental Illness Fosters Creativity? « The Runaway Lawyer: We've all suspected that highly creative people suffer fr… […]

  2. May 19, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    […] Go here to read the rest: Mental Illness Fosters Creativity? « The Runaway Lawyer […]

  3. RorschachAndAwe said,

    May 19, 2010 at 11:49 pm

    I submit that Dr. Ullén may be confusing correlation and causality. Perhaps the box appears to be less intact because the boundaries of the box are poorly drawn by those who think inside it.

    Thinking outside the box is often facilitated by recognizing its lack of intrinsic value.

  4. mckeebop said,

    May 20, 2010 at 3:17 am

    The brain is our undiscovered country, for sure. There’s also a close correlation between very funny people and depression/mental illness – the sad clown syndrome.

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