Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mental Illness & Creativity

It has long been noticed that creativity, intelligence, and mental illness often go together. Think of Isaac Newton, who appears to have struggled with with bipolar disorder--and whose creative days largely ended after a nervous breakdown. Or the mathematician John Nash. Or Vincent Van Gogh.

A study published several years ago suggests that this is not coincidence, described in the October 1, 2003 Science Daily:
The study in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology says the brains of creative people appear to be more open to incoming stimuli from the surrounding environment. Other people's brains might shut out this same information through a process called "latent inhibition" - defined as an animal's unconscious capacity to ignore stimuli that experience has shown are irrelevant to its needs. Through psychological testing, the researchers showed that creative individuals are much more likely to have low levels of latent inhibition.

"This means that creative individuals remain in contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment," says co-author and U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson. "The normal person classifies an object, and then forgets about it, even though that object is much more complex and interesting than he or she thinks. The creative person, by contrast, is always open to new possibilities."

Previously, scientists have associated failure to screen out stimuli with psychosis. However, Peterson and his co-researchers - lead author and psychology lecturer Shelley Carson of Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard PhD candidate Daniel Higgins - hypothesized that it might also contribute to original thinking, especially when combined with high IQ. They administered tests of latent inhibition to Harvard undergraduates. Those classified as eminent creative achievers - participants under age 21 who reported unusually high scores in a single area of creative achievement - were seven times more likely to have low latent inhibition scores.

The authors hypothesize that latent inhibition may be positive when combined with high intelligence and good working memory - the capacity to think about many things at once - but negative otherwise. Peterson states: "If you are open to new information, new ideas, you better be able to intelligently and carefully edit and choose. If you have 50 ideas, only two or three are likely to be good. You have to be able to discriminate or you'll get swamped."

"Scientists have wondered for a long time why madness and creativity seem linked," says Carson. "It appears likely that low levels of latent inhibition and exceptional flexibility in thought might predispose to mental illness under some conditions and to creative accomplishment under others."

For example, during the early stages of diseases such as schizophrenia, which are often accompanied by feelings of deep insight, mystical knowledge and religious experience, chemical changes take place in which latent inhibition disappears.
This is not surprising to me at all. Schizophrenia involves false information reaching the brain--apparently because the nervous system misrepresents various stimuli. It would not be surprising if creativity and intelligence benefit from having lots of data--but what causes schizophrenia might be that whatever biochemistry causes "lots of data" is not radically removed from "lots of data, much of it false."

What I am not too happy with is how the article ends:
"We are very excited by the results of these studies," says Peterson. "It appears that we have not only identified one of the biological bases of creativity but have moved towards cracking an age-old mystery: the relationship between genius, madness and the doors of perception."
The Doors of Perception was a book by Aldous Huxley published in 1954 that argued that we are all victims of limited senses, and that psychedlic drugs opened us up to the universal consciousness that was out there, by opening the doors of perception. Unfortunately, psychdelic drugs would appear to be more like a kaleidoscope--something that gives pretty colors, but distorts reality, instead of showing us a more true reality.

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