When A Car Learns To Fly: Creativity flourishes with certain genetic mutations

The term “neurodiversity” first appeared in 1998 in a New York Times article by American journalist Harvey Blume. It was an intriguing idea – that neurological differences such as Autism Spectrum, ADHD, bipolar, et al., are not conditions that require medical intervention to “cure” them, but rather a natural variation in the human genome. Instead of pharmaceuticals designed to make them “normal,” neurodiverse individuals would benefit far more from support that honors their unique form of self-expression.

In artistic circles, consideration of neurodiversity begs the question: Is there a connection between creativity and brain disorders? 

Throughout history, there have been many famous people who struggled with mental illness. The list is both long and rather impressive: Ludwig van Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln, Vincent Van Gogh, Winston Churchill and Virginia Woolf to name just a few. But when scientists searched for a connection between creativity and brain disorders, their studies raised more questions than they answered. 

We are only now discovering that there are a great number of factors that affect the manifestation of our genetic tendencies in addition to the DNA itself.

Christa Taylor of SUNY at Albany realized that previous researchers may have been making a crucial mistake. “A number of symptoms of manic episodes are also characteristic of intense creative activity and may resemble characteristics (i.e., intense and focused concentration, distorted sense of time, etc.) which frequently occur in individuals engaged in creative projects,” she wrote. “Studies using diagnostic criteria to diagnose mood disorder in creative individuals may be confounding mood disorder symptoms with the experience of creativity itself.”

However, not all neurodiversity is created equal. Neurodiverse individuals often have extraordinary capabilities, but unless they find a way to constructively channel those energies, the result can be a life of dysfunction. The neurodiverse brain is like a super-powered jet – and the majority of research has measured those jets against the standards of an earth-bound car.

In a 2017 article in Psychiatric, Ronald W. Pies, MD wrote: “Imagination and psychosis are different categories of experience, and should not be confused or conflated.” As an example, he cited James Joyce, whose mentally ill daughter was analyzed by Carl Jung and later diagnosed with schizophrenia. At the time, Joyce saw a direct connection between his creative genius and his daughter’s illness: “Whatever spark or gift I possess has been transmitted to Lucia,” Joyce told Jung, “and it has kindled a fire in [Lucia’s] brain.” But Jung saw a difference between father and daughter, describing them as “two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving.”

Jung was addressing a crucial distinction between the involuntary nature of psychosis (“falling”) and the voluntary act of the creative imagination (“diving”). Lucia lacked the focus and drive her father had.

Years later, Szabolcs Kéri’s genetic research shed more light on Jung’s theory. The Neuregulin 1 gene mutation had already been linked to an increased risk of schizophrenia; Kéri’s study sought to determine how these variations affect creativity. He genotyped 200 adults and put them through tests that involved creative thinking. It was discovered that individuals with a single copy of Neuregulin 1 scored better than individuals without the mutation and those with a double copy of the Neuregulin 1 mutation scored significantly higher than all other groups. 

At first, these findings seemed in direct conflict with previous studies which involved families in the general population – in those individuals, the same Neuregulin 1 mutation was associated with lower intelligence and psychotic symptoms. But as the data was analyzed, a new picture began to emerge.

Neuregulin 1 appears to dampen a brain region called the prefrontal cortex that normally reins in mood and behavior. This alteration can unleash creative potential in some people, and psychotic delusions in others. This is where differences between the groups came into play. Kéri’s volunteers tended to be smarter than average. 

“My clinical experience is that high-IQ people with psychosis have more intellectual capacity to deal with psychotic experiences,” Kéri wrote. “It’s not enough to experience those feelings, you have to communicate them.”

Since communication and expression are the very essences of creativity, the following should come as no surprise – a study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2013 found that although people in creative professions were more likely to experience bipolar mood swings, they were less likely than other people to have a diagnosis of schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorder, autism, ADHD or drug and alcohol abuse. Maybe those “crazy” artists aren’t as crazy as we thought.

Science needs to rethink its paradigms of both disability and human potential. Our genetics are the map, but we are the travelers. Our doctors cannot take this journey for us; it’s time that the patients learned how to drive.