National Alliance on Mental Illness
page printed from
(800) 950-NAMI;

Beautiful Minds: Creativity and Mental Illness

Beautiful MindsPeople who think differently—whether they’re artists or people living with mental illness—may share similar brain structures. Recent research at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden found a possible explanation for the link between the uninhibited processing that allows creative people to think outside the box and people living schizophrenia—specifically in the part of the brain that processes dopamine.

The leader of the project, associate professor Dr. Fredrik Ullén, described the connection between thought patterns and brain chemistry by saying, “Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box.”

Past studies have shown that dopamine receptor genes are linked to ability for divergent thought. Dr. Ullén's study measured the creativity of healthy individuals using divergent psychological tests in which the task was to find many different solutions to a problem.

"The study shows that highly creative people who did well on the divergent tests had a lower density of D2 [dopamine] receptors in the thalamus than less creative people," says Dr. Ullén. "[People living with] Schizophrenia are also known to have low D2-density in this part of the brain, suggesting a cause of the link between mental illness and creativity."

BBC News highlighted the institute’s findings, citing many influential creative people such as writer Virginia Woolf, painters Vincent van Gogh, Salvador Dali and Edvard Munch, composer Robert Schumann, mathematician John Nash (the inspiration for the movie A Beautiful Mind) and pianist David Helfgott.

U.K. psychologist Mark Millard told BBC that the overlap with mental illness might explain the motivation and determination creative people share. "Creativity is uncomfortable. It is their dissatisfaction with the present that drives [creative people] on to make changes,” he says. “There is no sense of conventional limitations… Take Salvador Dali, for example. He certainly saw the world differently and behaved in a way that some people perceived as very odd."

Other studies examined a possible link between a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia and artistic tendencies. A genetic difference known as neuregulin 1 may be present in creative people and individuals with psychotic symptoms, with the gene’s expression affected by a variety of factors.