As nutty as Dali, as crazy as van Gogh

Left: Portrait of Salvador Dali (taken in Hôtel Meurice, Paris, by Allen Warren, 1972). Right: Self-portrait with bandaged ear and pipe (van Gogh, 1889). Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Left: Portrait of Salvador Dali (taken in Hôtel Meurice, Paris, by Allen Warren, 1972). Right: Self-portrait with bandaged ear and pipe (van Gogh, 1889). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Having a brain disease means to have different scores on emotion, cognition, and behavior inventories than the population mean. Also different from the population mean is the ability of an artist to create evocative things. Whether is a piece of music or a painting (or in my case a simple straight line), whether we like it or not, most of us agree that we couldn’t have done it. Also, artists show a decrease in practical reasoning, just like the schizophrenics.

Power et al. (2015) sought to find out if there is a link between being creative and having schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Lucky for them, the north-European countries keep detailed medical and genetic databases of their population: they had access to 5 databases from Iceland, Sweden, and Netherlands, featuring tens to hundreds of thousands of people.

The authors analyzed hundreds of thousands of individual genetic differences (i.e. SNPs = single nucleotide polymorphisms) that had been previously linked with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. As a side note, some of this data was obtained by inviting citizens to voluntarily fill out a detailed medical questionnaire and donate blood for DNA analysis. A staggering amount of people agreed. I wonder how many would have done so in U.S.A….

Anyway, the authors defined creative individuals (artists) as “those having (or ever having had) positions in the fields of dance, film, music, theater, visual arts or writing” (online supplemental methods), including those teaching these subjects. And they found out that the same genetic makeup that increases the risk of developing schizophrenia or bipolar disorder also underlies creativity. This link was not explained by education, age, sex, or shared environment.

The study also knocked down an evolutionary explanation for the persistence of schizophrenia and bipolar disorders in the genetic pool. The hypothesis posits that we still have these devastating brain disorders because they come with the side effect of creativity that offsets their negative fitness; but that does not hold, as the artists in this study had less children than the average population. Authors did not offer an alternative speculation.

Reference: Power, R. A., Steinberg, S., Bjornsdottir, G., Rietveld, C. A., Abdellaoui, A., Nivard, M. M., Johannesson, M., Galesloot, T.E., Hottenga, J. J., Willemsen, G., Cesarini, D., Benjamin, D. J., Magnusson, P. K., Ullén, F., Tiemeier, H., Hofman, A., van Rooij, F. J., Walters, G. B., Sigurdsson, E., Thorgeirsson, T. E., Ingason, A., Helgason, A., Kong, A., Kiemeney, L. A., Koellinger, P., Boomsma, D. I., Gudbjartsson, D., Stefansson, H., & Stefansson K. (July 2015, Epub 8 June 2015). Polygenic risk scores for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder predict creativity. Nature Neuroscience, 8(7):953-5. doi: 10.1038/nn.4040. Article + Nature comment

By Neuronicus, 7 October 2015

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