Newton, Einstein, and a Gaggle of Writers

Linking Creativity With Mental Illness

Michael T. Compton, MD, MPH


June 17, 2011

In This Article

Newton, Einstein, and a Genetic Justification for Schizophrenia?

Regarding the link between creativity and schizophrenia, Dr. Andreasen pointed out the interesting observation that the incidence and prevalence of psychotic disorders has evidently remained constant over time and is roughly the same around the world. Furthermore, researchers have documented a high heritability (70%-80%) based on studies of monozygotic and dizygotic twins. Yet, those affected with schizophrenia rarely marry and usually do not have children. So, why do such disorders persist in the population? One explanation may lie in the connection between genius/creativity and serious mental illnesses.

This connection is exemplified in the stories of some of the most important discoveries of modern science, one of which is Newtonian mechanics. Newton was known to have had a psychotic break at about age 40; he lived alone, had no children, and likely had unusual interests and beliefs. Einstein's relativity is another major discovery, and Einstein was known to have schizotypal traits, be aloof, have difficulty relating to others, and to have had a son with schizophrenia. "Does the illness (or carrying the diathesis for it) confer an ability to perceive and think in a highly original way?" Dr. Andreasen asked, "To perceive new and different relationships?" Creativity is a mental gift that permits people to perceive in original and novel ways -- to see things that others cannot. It is shared across disciplines such as mathematics and literature. It makes its possessor "different," and sometimes vulnerable to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or mood disorders. It is possible that schizophrenia persists in the gene pool because of its association with creativity and genius.


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