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Mental Illness And Creativity Revisited

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Oct 11, 2011 3:51 PMNov 5, 2019 12:15 AM


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A new study offers support for the theory that mental illness is associated with "creative" achievement.

The idea that madness is close to creative genius is a popular one. From the nutty professor to the tortured genius, there's no end of sterotypes, and pop culture seemingly offers plenty of examples, from Van Gogh and his ear to Charlie Sheen and his bi-winning.

But is it true?

A new study says yes. Kyaga et al looked at everyone in Sweden who had been treated as an inpatient for either schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression, between 1973 and 2003. In total that meant about 300,000 people (two thirds of that was depression).

They then matched this up with the Swedish national census which asks people their occupation. They looked to see whether the psychiatric cases were more likely to have been employed in a "creative" profession. They defined that as visual artists (photographers, designers, etc.) non-visual artists (musicians, actors, authors) and academics (university teachers).

Finally, they pulled up the records on the patients' relatives, to see what their jobs were. This is one of those studies that could only happen in Scandinavia, because only those countries keep such comprehensive ( rather scarily so) info about their citizens.

They found that being bipolar, or being a close relative of someone who's bipolar, was associated with having a creative job. For schizophrenia, the picture was more complex: being a schizophrenia inpatient was not linked to being a creative in itself, but being related to someone with schizophrenia was. The effects were fairly modest.

For depression (not bipolar, just plain unipolar depression), there was no link at all, or even a slightly lower level.

The correlation wasn't driven by differences in IQ (yes, they had data on that too, for males, thanks to military service records.) Creative types had higher IQs on average while psych inpatients had slightly lower IQs than others. So correcting for IQ made the associations even stronger.

So it looks as though being bipolar, at any rate, is linked to creativity, and so is having bipolar and schizophrenia in the family - if you believe these findings. Should we?

This study was huge and the data are, on the face of it, very comprehensive. However, it turns out that many people didn't state their occupation, especially the patients. Only 45% of people with schizophrenia gave a valid answer, compared to 75% of the bipolar and depressed. In the controls, it was about 80%.

That's a serious issue. The authors did try to get around this by looking at the siblings of the patients with missing data. For schizophrenia, siblings of missing data schizophrenics were more creative than for the ones with full data, and for bipolar there was no difference. So the effects are not due to nonreporting of non-creative jobs.

Another possible confound is family background and environment. Indeed, the fact that people with bipolar were no more likely to be in a creative job than their relatives who weren't bipolar (or, at least, never received inpatient treatment) rather supports this view. Maybe the relatives shared genes with the patients meaning that their creativity was associated with bipolar, but we can't know that.

One reassuring piece of evidence against the idea that these results were driven by a general correlation between psychiatric hospitalization and "middle class professions" is that there was no association with the "non-creative" job of accountancy and auditing (sorry accountants and auditors).

Overall, while this is an interesting study, and while I find the proposed link between mental illness and creativity plausible, we need more detailed research to ensure that the correlation isn't just a reflection of socioeconomic factors.

Kyaga, S., Lichtenstein, P., Boman, M., Hultman, C., Langstrom, N. Landen, M. (2011). Creativity and mental disorder: family study of 300 000 people with severe mental disorder The British Journal of Psychiatry DOI: 10.1192/bjp.bp.110.085316

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