Another day, another study. This time coming out of Iceland and drawing conclusions and correlations about Bipolar Disorder (BD) and creativity. Through a study undertaken by Kári Stefánsson, MD, a weak correlation between Bipolar and creativity was found, and as would have it, other psychologists and social scientists have picked up on this causal link and run with it. While it appears to be a sound conclusion that creativity and BD share a small genetic link (with people with BD having the likelihood of being more creative than your average punter by roughly 17%), it is a long reach to make the assumption that all people with BD are creative and that most people who are creative are mentally ill, yet the hordes continue to do so and I’m not entirely sure why.
There happens to be a ‘bump’ or abnormality in the genome of those with BD and Schizophrenia, an abnormality which can predispose an individual to a mental illness, combined with trauma and a family history, this bump can be activated resulting in a full-blown illness with psychotic features. Many people carry these gene carriages, yet most don’t end up with a psychotic disorder, instead what has been found is that this gene mutation (when unactivated into psychotic illness) can enhance creativity through the naturally occurring chemical enhancement of particular areas of the brain.
We have Aristotle to thank/blame for the initial links supposedly found between psychotic illnesses and creativity. Linking madness, creativity and genius throughout the times, Aristotle wrote extensively on his observations of the madly creative. What has been found to be true from more contemporary studies, especially studies coming out of Europe, is that while the person with a mental illness may not be any more creative than the average person, the offspring of those with BD and Schizophrenia are more likely to display elements of creative abounds. These results have been replicated in numerous studies, with some studies continuing to find marginally higher levels of creativity in those with a lived experience of Bipolar Disorder (as opposed to Schizophrenia). What has tended to happen though, is that these small glitches in data have been bought together to form a larger picture, one which often deviates in relation to the data source. About his study of more than 80,000 Icelanders who were performing, auditory or visual artists, Stefánsson says “Indeed, the risk for schizophrenia is substantially higher in creative professions than in the average population in Iceland,” he goes on to say (if people are getting at least some of their creative impulse from these genes then) “the variance in the genome that leads to creativity also leads to schizophrenia.”
The issue with linking these statements to findings is that we disregard the understanding that a small fraction of our genome causes variations in psychological traits, while larger parts of our genetic construct remain disregarded in studies such as those by Stefánsson (Sample, 2015). That is, creativity and genius are more complex that isolating particular components of our genome (mainly those related to psychotic illness) and stating we have found correlation is overly simplistic and nullifies much of what we do know about cistron formation amongst other factors. Stefánsson’s study finds a statistically significant link between madness and creativity, yet when we filter and place this finding along the statistical spectrum, while significant, the finding is minute. It is repeatedly noted that less than 1% of our genetic profile affects and influences creativity. Alongside of and more significant than our genetic makeup are sociological factors, such as ability to pursue creative activity, ability to finance lessons to refine skill, individual determination and effort/practice. In many regards the casual public assumption that mental illness and creativity are inter-linked disregards the effort of artists who have no predisposition to mental illness. Effort by far outweighs genetics.
While I don’t entirely disregard the links Stefánsson and others have found, as someone with Bipolar Disorder, I see that the continuation of a myth, built on slim statistical findings can further undermine the way in which people with mental illness are seen in our community and in particular the way in which we are depicted in media. What happens when you have Bipolar and don’t find yourself to be creative? How does the non-mentally ill artist perceive those of us who declare creativity based upon genetic heritage alone? There simply can’t be a singular source of inspiration and creativity, simply because…we are not that simple!
While I see myself as a creative type, my mania can act as a conduit for creativity, yet it can also act as a hindrance, seeing me unable to engage in simple day-to-day activities, let alone writing my next compositional masterpiece. When mania works to my creative advantage, it is more likely related to the fact that while others sleep I remain awake, working myself into a state of altered consciousness through extreme fatigue and putting in hours upon hours of practice, which may then impact on the quantity (not the quality) of my product. Yet, the more we create the more likely we are to land a gem; a gem which can only be found in our creative goldmine of productivity and over-productivity (whether we are mad or not). Is it better not to be a lazy-mad writer than to be a sane, practiced, highly-productive artist, unhindered by the maddening symptoms that can hinder creativity in itself?
Sample, I. 2015 New study claims to find genetic link between creativity and mental illness. The Guardian. Accessed 13/9/2015. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jun/08/new-study-claims-to-find-genetic-link-between-creativity-and-mental-illness