Newton, Einstein, and a Gaggle of Writers

Linking Creativity With Mental Illness

Michael T. Compton, MD, MPH


June 17, 2011

In This Article

What Does Chaos Theory Tell Us?

In her early PET studies, Dr. Andreasen realized that the usual control condition was a REST (Random Episodic Silent Thought) state, which is actually a very interesting state that may represent the unconscious, the source for creativity, dreams, and religious experiences. Areas of increased activity during REST, this state that mimics the unconscious, include the inferior and superior frontal cortex, and inferior and superior temporal cortex, or essentially all of the major association cortices of the brain (those parts that give meaning to print on a page and things coming in from the external world via the senses). These association areas were recently renamed the "default mode network" and are now known to represent areas accounting for the majority of the brain's metabolic consumption.

Dr. Andreasen likened this REST or default mode network to self-organizing systems described by chaos theory within the field of physics. Such systems -- exemplified by the flocking of birds, schooling of fish, changes in ecosystems due to climate change, and variations in the global economy related to changes in geopolitics or natural resources -- consist of a bunch of parts that are organizing the whole, with no one part or executive in charge. As such, their movements are very difficult to predict and are not linear. In sum, the whole is greater than the constituent parts; the parts are what organize continuously to create something new. Control is not centralized; it is distributed throughout the whole system. Dr. Andreasen reviewed these tenets of chaos theory to suggest that creativity as a function of the brain is similar. Association cortices are freely communicating back and forth without being subject to reality principles; thus, the creative process cannot be localized -- it is an emergent process.

Data From Family Studies

In her studies of the connection between genius/creativity and mental illness, Dr. Andreasen initially conducted structured interviews, using her own diagnostic criteria, of subjects with exceptional artistic creativity and their first-degree family members. She used specific criteria to define their level of creativity. Beginning this work in the early 1970s, she recruited 30 well-known writers during about a 15-year period. Her original hypothesis was that the first-degree relatives would have an elevated rate of schizophrenia. Instead, she found significant differences in terms of having any bipolar disorder, any mood disorder, or alcoholism (in comparing the writers to controls); furthermore, the relatives had increased rates of mood disorders and higher levels of creativity compared with controls. Thus, the highly creative and productive writers and their biological relatives appear to have a shared diathesis that predisposes to both mood disorder and enhanced creativity. In the second Iowa study of creative genius, Dr. Andreasen has added functional magnetic imaging and DNA collection.


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