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The Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness

Great comedians not only make us laugh, they reveal bizarre observations and unusual connections that they’ve drawn from the world around them. Connections that most every day people wouldn’t normally dream of. Who else among our population has this ability? Highly creative people such as artists, poets, and novelists, and as it turns out, those with certain mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Studies have even shown that creative skills are more common in those who have a genetic history of mental illness than those who do not.

What is creativity?

Researchers at the Vanderbilt University in Tennessee define creativity as the ability to create something new out of that which already exists. According to journalist Bill Moyers, “Creativity is piercing the mundane to find the marvelous.” In James Webb Young’s 1939 treatise, “A Technique for Producing Ideas,” he attests that “an idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements…”

So what’s the connection?

Studies have found that those who are highly creative or who have schizophrenia have brains that respond differently to dopamine (the “feel good” neurotransmitter in reward response.) Scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm investigated this by having 14 test subjects (with no history of mental illness) take a test designed to measure their creativity by asking them to find multiple solutions to one problem. The ones who performed well were considered highly creative and, consequently, had a lower density of D2 receptors in their brains than the test-takers who were considered less creative.

People diagnosed with schizophrenia also have lower levels of D2 receptors. These receptors are specific points in the thalamus region of the brain designed to receive dopamine. The thalamus filters information for us before allowing it to reach our cortex, which is responsible for reason and cognition. The Karolinska Institutet researchers propose that because of the fewer D2 receptors, the thalamus probably filters a lot less information, which allows a larger amount to reach the cortex. This might be why those who are highly creative and those with schizophrenia are able to make unusual connections and outlandish associations between seemingly unrelated ideas.

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