Does Creativity Up Your Risk of Mental Illness?

Iceland researchers say there's a genetic link, other scientists say it's flimsy
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 14, 2015 9:00 AM CDT
Updated Jun 14, 2015 9:10 AM CDT
Does Creativity Up Your Risk of Mental Illness?
Can creativity cost you?   (Shutterstock)

The "mad genius" is back in fashion with a new claim that there's a genetic link between creativity and genius, the Guardian reports. A study published in Nature Neuroscience analyzed 86,000 Icelanders to flesh out genetic variations that double one's risk of schizophrenia and more than triple the risk of bipolar disorder; there was a 17% increase in these variants among subjects who were members of national arts societies over nonmembers. Those in the creative arts (e.g., writers, painters) were on average 25% more likely to carry the gene variations than farmers, salespeople, and laborers. Researchers then replicated the study to much the same effect in the Netherlands and Sweden. "To be creative, you have to think differently," study co-author Kari Stefansson tells the Guardian. "And when we are different, we have a tendency to be labeled strange, crazy, and even insane."

But the naysayers are out in full force. First, the effect is small—the genetic factors upping the risk of mental problems explained only about 0.25% of them, per NPR. A University of Pennsylvania psychologist makes the nature-versus-nurture argument, noting "any particular set of genes is only going to explain a very small part of variation in any psychological trait." Another psychologist points out that a staid lawyer could still be a wonderful musician on the side, and that the study's premise is "scientifically hollow, but convenient for their purposes," per the Verge. And a Harvard psychiatry professor who interviewed 45 Nobel Prize-winning scientists for a book (finding none had signs of mental illness) agrees that results may be "skewed." "Nearly all mental hospitals use art therapy, and so when patients come out, many are attracted to artistic positions and artistic pursuits," he tells the Guardian. (Want to up your creativity? Dim the lights.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.