Are Creative People Mentally Ill?

No, but they are likely to be related to someone who is.

I know, this blog is a dialogue about creative productivity, so why talk about mental illness? Well it turns out that neuroscience is proving that creativity and mental illness are, well… related.

brain mazeCreative people may have inherited ‘good’ traits from mentally ill relatives. Traits which allow them to approach problems in highly creative ways.

Schizotypal traits

According to Scott Barry Kaufman, creatives are likely to possess ‘Schizotypal’ traits. (Schizotypal is not schizophrenia.) Findings show a link between Schizotypy and creative cognition.

“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?”
From “The Real Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness

Reading this made me smile. Although never diagnosed as such, I grew up with a family member who exhibited bipolar behaviour. She was brilliant and highly creative, but extremely volatile. I appreciated her thinking process and equally feared her. And I was concerned that I would grow up to be the same, because I could relate to the good and bad in her more than others could.

“Schizotypal traits can be broken down into two types. “Positive” schizotypy includes unusual perceptual experiences, thin mental boundaries between self and other, impulsive nonconformity, and magical beliefs. “Negative” schizotypal traits include cognitive disorganization and physical and social anhedonia (difficulty experiencing pleasure from social interactions and activities that are enjoyable for most people).”

Thankfully I don’t exhibit the negative schizotypal traits, while I do draw on the positive ones.

Extra brain activity in creative thinking

Brain with precuneus highlightedCreative people are sometimes accessing part of the brain that non-creative people do not. The precuneus is a section of the brain that is typically active during rest. However, the more creative the individual, the more activity is found in the precuneus during “effortful working memory tasks”. It is possible that this unnecessary brain activity is enabling more creative thought connections.

The wonder of everything

Kaufman goes on to describe something called ‘latent inhibition‘, which is a filtering mechanism. Reduced latent inhibition allows us to experience wonder and newness, even with objects and situations that are familiar.

As well as creativity, reduced latent inhibition is also tied to hyper-activity and schizophrenia.

Mental adventure

Just like travelling to a new part of the world is an adventure with potential risks, creative people push the envelope when travelling to new places in their minds.

“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.”

Some of us have access to interesting ways of thinking that are truly unique, and can sometime resemble those of people with mental illness. But unlike people with mental illness, healthy creative people can access fluid reasoning, working memory, cognitive inhibition, and cognitive flexibility, all of which help us to cross over and come back again.

Being responsible for our creative quirks

Knowing it’s okay to be different is powerful. Being responsible for your unique thinking is an important first step in becoming prolific. It’s important to acknowledging that our creative quirks may look a little weird to others, while trying to get access to the good parts of that weirdness.

Setting up structures that intentionally launch these parts of our brains, as well as others to help ensure a safe landing, provide us some control over when and how often we can reliably access these special traits in our own thinking. Structures will play a large role in our future conversations.

Author: Peter Benes

Ui Designer and Songwriter in Kitchener-Waterloo, Canada

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