Creativity and the Brain

brain, creativity

fMRI brain images (photo: en.wikipedia)

Lots of articles about creativity in the current issue of The Atlantic, including a fascinating long report by neuroscientist and psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen who studies the origins of creativity in the brain and its association with mental illness. She started out in the 1960’s studying people involved with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Among them was Kurt Vonnegut, who had a multigenerational family history of mental disorders and suffered from depression. (Moving interviews with Vonnegut’s son Mark were included in PBS News Hour’s coverage of Andreasen’s research.) Indeed, for many of the writers she studied, “mental illness and creativity went hand in hand.” Suicide was not uncommon. We think Hemingway, Plath, now Williams. Philip Seymour Hoffman was also far down that self-destructive path.

Andreasen began her academic career clutching a doctorate in literature, taught in the University of Iowa’s English Department, and published a book about the poet John Donne. But she chose to return to school in the sciences, hoping that study of the brain would lead her to understand why authors she admired had gone off the rails—and maybe even to help future writers.

She’s worked on two vital questions: “What differences in nature and nurture can explain why some people suffer from mental illness and some do not? And why are so many of the world’s most creative minds among the most afflicted?” As in many areas of neuroscience, the development of scanning technology, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has enabled her to watch the brains of creative people “at work,” and these scans reveal tantalizing clues to her hitherto unanswerable questions.

Earlier work has shown that high IQ is not particularly linked to creativity—“above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t have much effect on creativity,” she says. If she couldn’t predict creativity from IQ measurement (with all its flaws), she had to find other ways to find subjects for research. She looked for external recognition, which led her to the distinguished faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Interviews rather quickly revealed that mood disorders (depression, mostly) were common among the writers and often ran in families. In fact, about 80 percent of the writers she interviewed had such a mental health history, compared with about 30 percent in her control group and in the population at large.

But how to measure creativity in the brain? After years of pondering this difficulty, Andreasen finally arrived at this insight: “Creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see.”

She has expanded her study to include creative individuals from the sciences as well as the arts. This inclusion has brought her George Lucas, mathematician William Thurston, and six Nobel laureates from the sciences, in addition to novelist Jane Smiley and a group of young creative achievers. Despite their diverse fields, all these individuals show similar brain processes, revealed in the scans, that differ from the workings of control group members’ brains.

Wearing her psychiatrist’s hat, Andreasen talks with her subjects (creatives and controls) about their growing up, family life, relationships, and creative activities. From these interviews, she’s learned that “Creative people work much harder than the average person—and usually that’s because they love their work.” She’s studied 26 people so far—13 creative geniuses and 13 controls—and validated the link between mental illness and creativity as well as the evidence that creativity tends to run in families, though it may not confine itself to a single field.

Other traits of the creatives include a personality style that leads them to take risks, confront rejection, and persist. Of course, she says, “Persisting in the face of doubt or rejection, for artists or for scientists, can be a lonely path,” and may in itself contribute to mental illness. Many creative people are autididacts—they love to teach themselves—and polymaths, with a wide variety of diverse interests. This holds true despite out education system’s persistent separation of the arts and the sciences. “If we wish to nurture creative students,” Andreasen says, “this may be a serious error.”

She closes by referring to the case of John Nash, the Nobel prize-winning mathematician who has schizophrenia (and who lives around the corner from me), profiled in the book and movie A Beautiful Mind. “Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. And some people, like John Nash, are both.”