Link between Creativity and Mental Illness Discovered (Again)

Josh Clark

Around 7:30 on the morning of Sunday, July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway went downstairs to the foyer of his home in Ketchum, Idaho, still clad in pajamas and robe, removed a 12-gauge shotgun from a rack near the front door, and shot himself in the head with it.

Hemingway was 61 when he committed suicide. He'd just been released after a two-month stint at the Mayo Clinic, where he'd been treated for severe depression. He followed in the footsteps of his father, who had shot himself at age 57.

That last part could be important, because a recent finding suggests that Hemingway may have inherited his depression and his creativity from his father through the same gene locus. A study out of Semmelweiss University in Hungary tested the blood of a pool of self-identified creative people and found that those who scored highest on a test of creativity had a neuregulin 1 (NRG1) gene variant in common.The gene is responsible for creating proteins that grease up neurotransmitter receptors, allowing for better synapse coupling.

Trust me, you want better synapse coupling. Different gene pairings for NRG1 have been linked to susceptibility to schizophrenia and affective disorders. The Hungarian findings show that the same gene may also be responsible for high creativity as well.

The problem with the study is that it smacks a bit of an overly-eager search for that very link. Testing creativity is highly subjective. For the Hungarian study, participants answered the question: "Just suppose clouds had strings attached to them which hang down to earth. What would happen?"And science has been searching for the link between the overt correlation of madness and creativity. Hemingway is one in a proud tradition of disturbed creative geniuses. Edgar Allen Poe and Vincent Van Gogh both suffered from bipolar disorder. Sylvia Plath, Tennessee Williams, Virginia Woolf, John Keats and Charles Dickens all suffered from clinical depression. Franz Kafka suffered from anorexia nervosa. Dylan Thomas, Charles Bukowski, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulker were all alcoholics. God knows what was up with Hunter Thompson. If you've heard of a creative, you can pretty much bet that they suffered from some sort of mental illness.

The inspiration for Hungarian study may have also been informed by previous research into links between mental illness and creativity. My favorite so far one found that schizophrenics and creatives share a low latent inhibition, the mental defense against the constant barrage of external sensory stimulus that prevents us from a psychotic break brought on by the incessant humming of fluorescent lights and the like. The difference, posited the Harvard researcher who came up with this idea, is that the higher intellect of creatives allow them to do novel things with the additional stimuli, while schizophrenics think they're being told to burn things. The problem is that schizophrenics' intellectual abilities remain unchanged after becoming ill, usually around their early 20s, and the disease doesn't specifically target those with low IQs.

It's possible the Hungarians have turned up the link between mental illness and creativity. We'll know soon enough, after the $1,000 personal genome takes off. Until then, I'm curious. What do you think would happen if clouds had strings attached to them that came down to earth?

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More on HowStuffWorks.com: Top 5 Mad Geniuses What's a thinking cap -- and could it make me a genius? How Geniuses Work