Creativity is akin to insanity, say scientists who have been studying how the mind works.
Brain scans reveal striking similarities in the thought pathways of highly creative people and those with schizophrenia.
Both groups lack important receptors used to filter and direct thought.
It could be this uninhibited processing that allows creative people to “think outside the box”, say experts from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.
In some people, it leads to mental illness.
But rather than a clear division, experts suspect a continuum, with some people having psychotic traits but few negative symptoms.
Art and suffering
Some of the world’s leading artists, writers and theorists have also had mental illnesses – the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh and American mathematician John Nash (portrayed by Russell Crowe in the film A Beautiful Mind) to name just two.
Creativity is known to be associated with an increased risk of depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
The thalamus channels thoughts
Similarly, people who have mental illness in their family have a higher chance of being creative.
Associate Professor Fredrik Ullen believes his findings could help explain why.
He looked at the brain’s dopamine (D2) receptor genes which experts believe govern divergent thought.
He found highly creative people who did well on tests of divergent thought had a lower than expected density of D2 receptors in the thalamus – as do people with schizophrenia.
The thalamus serves as a relay centre, filtering information before it reaches areas of the cortex, which is responsible, amongst other things, for cognition and reasoning.
“Fewer D2 receptors in the thalamus probably means a lower degree of signal filtering, and thus a higher flow of information from the thalamus,” said Professor Ullen.
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Creative people, like those with psychotic illnesses, tend to see the world differently to most. It’s like looking at a shattered mirror
He believes it is this barrage of uncensored information that ignites the creative spark.
This would explain how highly creative people manage to see unusual connections in problem-solving situations that other people miss.