We all, without needing to read piles of research, know that there is a connection between mental illness and creativity. Because of this connection we see repeatedly in society, there has been a phrase coined that says “There is no great genius without a touch of madness.” Many of our great minds produce one fantastic invention, such as Buckminster Fuller and Nikola Tesla, and become famous for that great contribution. But little do many people that they also produce many fringe theories that are generally seen as ‘crazy.’
Many famous people and celebrities have been or are schizophrenic or have had this illness tied to them genetically through family members who suffered with it. It is just as pertinent to point out that there are people living with schizophrenia who are not capable of producing anything artistic or creative, for their symptoms are far too intense for much functioning at all. So the question then becomes an inquiry into the nature of the correlation between schizophrenia and creativity. What is this strange connection, and what has the scientific and medical community found in its research?
Creativity and Schizophrenia’s Symptoms
Logically, one of the most critical symptoms in this relationship between schizophrenia and creativity is that of the loosening of linear thought. Free association can become so strong that it becomes difficult for anyone to follow the schizophrenic’s train of thought. A person can begin speaking in what is known as “word salad” which seems like discombobulated nonsense to an outsider. But insight into another person’s mind is not a requirement for that person to invent and create at a high level. Finding unique associations that others do not is perhaps the greatest definition of creativity.
As we mentioned before, this freedom of association can grow to such a severity and intensity that making any contribution to society is out of the question, let alone being productive for oneself such as taking care of basic hygiene needs. There is a balance that must be found within the range of symptomatic expression. They cannot be expressed to such a level of intensity that the individual can no longer function, but they must be strong enough to produce the effect of increased novelty in the mind.
It is not certain as to what causes this mechanism of loose associations to occur, but overall we know that dopamine plays a large role in the complexity of schizophrenia. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is involved with the process of creativity, ingenuity, motivation, and initiation. While many schizophrenics suffer with anhedonia, which is a loss of interest in pleasurable activity and a decrease in motivation towards seeking pleasure, many also find an increase in freethinking, spontaneity, and novelty.
Schizophrenia, Creativity, and Neurology
There have been some very significant progress in the medical field towards drawing a solid conclusion about the relationship between creativity and schizophrenia. In many research reports, findings have been delivered that show a similarity regarding dopamine receptors between the creative, but not schizophrenic, brain and the brain of a person diagnosed with schizophrenia. It appears that in the thalamus, the structure within the brain that passes sensory information and relays motor signals to the cerebral cortex and helps regulate normality in sleep and wakefulness, there is a less abundant distribution of receptors for dopamine. This similarity could certainly play a role in this creativity related enigma.
It has also been reported that both individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia and creative people have a below-average number of proteins in the thalamus that are conducive to information processing. Interestingly, one could imagine an increased ability in handling abstractions when there is a decreased ability with dealing with the external environment and sensory inputs.
Another peculiar tidbit is that people with schizophrenia have more activity and engagement in the right hemisphere of the brain, the side known to be less related to analytical and linear thinking and more associated with creativity and artistic ability. It also related to finding novel solutions to complex problems, which could explain the grand contributions to society from some of our genius schizophrenics.
Schizotypal Disorder and Creativity
Schizophrenics and creative people are often times very similar, however, less is said about the relatives of schizophrenic individuals. Schizophrenia has a genetic component to it, which means that relatives to schizophrenics are all carrying some predisposition to it, and possibly some aspects of this illness. In less severe cases where episodes of acute psychosis are absent, a relative may be diagnosed with schizotypal disorder. It considered different and separate, but obviously related to schizophrenia in a fashion. These individuals carry many of the symptoms that occur in schizophrenia but remain highly functional. These schizotypal folks, then, may seem strange to others but actually carry an enhanced cognition and creative ability.
It is very difficult to attempt to create a statistic surrounding creativity and schizophrenia. Many schizophrenics can be highly functional, contributing members of society. Many can have recovered fully from their symptoms to later make their contributions. And especially in cases of schizotypal disorder or less severe cases of schizophrenia, nobody may even know that this incredibly gifted, talented, and creative individual is dealing with any kind of psychological disorder.
It is also the case that in seeking treatment for schizophrenia, the medications may reduce symptoms but also interfere with the creative energies that stand to bubble forth in a passionate act of pure genius. We will never know the full extend of the relationship between creativity and schizophrenia, but we can know without a doubt that it exists and is quite powerful.