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The idea that very creative people are also a little crazy has been around since humanity’s earliest days. In modern times, that connection has persisted, from Robert Schumann hearing voices guide his music, to Sylvia Plath sticking her head in an oven, to Van Gogh cutting off his ear and giving it all wrapped up as a present to the one he loved, to Michael Jackson … being Michael Jackson.

Not all scientists are on board with the “mad genius” concept. In a commentary for the journal Frontiers in Psychology, psychologist Arne Dietrich questions the evidence in support of such a connection. Dietrich emphasizes that the vast majority of creative people aren’t mentally ill, and the vast majority of mentally ill are not geniuses. In short, he says, creativity is not a sign of mental illness at all, but of mental health.

“There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.”
—Salvador Dali

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Research shows that many eminent creators–particularly in the arts–had harsh early life experiences (such as social rejection, parental loss, or physical disability) and in most cases it lead to mental and emotional instability. However, this does not mean that mental illness was a contributing factor to their eminence.

Zorana Ivcevic Pringle found that people who engaged in everyday forms of creativity–such as making a collage, taking photographs, or publishing in a literary magazine–tended to be more open-minded, curious, persistent, positive, energetic, and intrinsically motivated by their activity. They also tended to rate their general well-being higher.

Creating can also be therapeutic for those who are already suffering. For instance, research shows that expressive writing increases immune system functioning, and the emerging field of post-traumatic growth is showing how people can turn adversity into creative growth.

In short, research has shown everything and the opposite of everything. So where is the truth?

The Real Link Between Creativity and Madness

In a recent report based on a 40-year study of roughly 1.2 million Swedish people, Simon Kyaga and colleagues found that with the exception of bi-polar disorder, those in scientific and artistic occupations were not more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders. So full-blown mental illness did not increase the probability of entering a creative profession (even the exception, bi-polar disorder, showed only a small effect of 8%).

What was striking, however, was that the siblings of patients with autism and the first-degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia nervosa were significantly overrepresented in creative professions. Could it be that the relatives inherited a watered-down version of the mental illness conducive to creativity while avoiding the aspects that are debilitating? Research supports the notion that psychologically healthy biological relatives of people with schizophrenia have unusually creative jobs and hobbies.

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Let the Crazy Stuff In: Precuneaus and Latent Inhibition.

Neuroscientist Hikaru Takeuchi and his colleagues found that the more creative the participant, the more they had difficulty suppressing the precuneus while engaging in an effortful working memory task. The precuneus is the area that typically displays the highest levels of activation during rest. How is this conducive to creativity? According to the researchers, “Such an inability to suppress seemingly unnecessary cognitive activity may actually help creative subjects in associating two ideas represented in different networks.”

It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible. Because you never know: sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas. Indeed, Shelley Carson and her colleagues found that the most eminent creative achievers among a sample of Harvard undergrads were seven times more likely to have reduced latent inhibition.

What is latent inhibition? Latent inhibition is a filtering mechanism that we share with other animals. It allows us to treat old stimuli as old (i.e. we react less to them) and new stimuli as new (i.e. we react more). A reduced latent inhibition allows us to treat something as novel, no matter how may times we’ve seen it before and tagged it as irrelevant.

Reduced latent inhibition is associated with a faith in intuition (as researched by Scott Barry Kauffman) and a higher openness to experience. As Shelley Carson points out, mental processes such as reduced latent inhibition, hyperconnectivity, and perseveration can “enlarge the range and depth of stimuli available in conscious awareness to be manipulated and combined to form novel and original ideas.”

In this sense, crazy ideas can become new ideas indeed. But be careful: you don’t need to be mad to create.

In the already cited Frontiers commentary, psychologist Arne Dietrich points to two common biases that perpetuate the general prejudice “creativity=madness”: one (the availability heuristic) makes an outcome seem more likely if it comes to mind easily, and the other (the confirmation bias) leads people to confirm their existing beliefs.

So the fact that we can quickly name mad geniuses leads us to believe all artists are crazy, and to ignore those who are not.

“When you say there’s an association between madness and genius, then that statement is wrong—flat out,” says Dietrich. “But if you are more careful about how to define your terms, and circumscribe the incidences and situations in which this link might occur, then you might be right.”

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