The Mysteries of Creativity

Guest post by science writer Carl Sherman

The relationship between creativity and mental illness has fascinated thinkers from the ancient Greeks onward. Van Gogh, Dostoevsky, Jackson Pollock, Hemingway, Tchaikovsky, and Schumann are among the artists, writers, and composers whose great achievements are said to have coexisted with significant psychopathology.

This apparent paradox is particularly striking in untrained “outsider artists” like Willem van Genk, who created estimable work despite a lifelong struggle with schizophrenia and autism. An exhibition devoted to van Genk was the occasion for a discussion, “Unraveling the Mysteries of Creativity: Connections to Genetics, Mental Health, and the Brain,” at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City last Thursday evening.

Shelley Carson, Ph.D., lecturer in psychology at Harvard University, said that studies have found at least double the normal rate of mood disorders in creative individuals, and twice the typical incidence of “psychosis proneness—unusual beliefs that don’t reach the level of delusions, or unusual perceptive experiences that aren’t actual hallucinations” in artists and poets.

She proposed a “shared vulnerability model” that accounts for the creativity-psychopathology link in terms of “some overlap in certain cognitive functions, genetically mediated, associated with both.”

Carson identified four such factors: cognitive disinhibition, highly changeable moods, a preference for novelty, and neural hyperconnectivity.

These, she conjectured, support a foundational element of creativity, “the ability to take bits of information coming from the environment via our senses, or stored in the repository of memories, emotions, knowledge, and skills, and to combine and recombine them in novel ways.”

Van Genk’s work, she said, highlights two of these factors: cognitive inhibition and neural hyperconnectivity. “Our brains are constantly hit with stimuli from the outer and inner environment. We filter out a lot of information to focus on what’s necessary for survival. Cognitive disinhibition means relaxing the filter.”

The resulting barrage of data can be overwhelming: recent research suggests an association between cognitive disinhibition and schizophrenia. But high intelligence “might allow an individual to have the information in conscious awareness, but also the cognitive strengths to process it and come up with original ideas,” she said.

Hyperconnectivity “allows individuals to make wider networks of associations between ideas. In van Genk’s work, we see everything connected to everything,” she said.

Willem van Genk Untitled (Reiseland Italien or Travel in Italy), 1964 Collection Foundation Willem van Genk, Museum Dr. Guislain, Ghent Photo: Guido Suykens, Ghent

Willem van Genk
Untitled (Reiseland Italien or Travel in Italy), 1964
Collection Foundation Willem van Genk, Museum Dr. Guislain, Ghent
Photo: Guido Suykens, Ghent

Sharon Thompson-Schill, Ph.D., co-director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, described research exploring a related theme, “the idea that cognitive control—the ability to regulate behaviors, emotions, and thoughts—may have costs as well as benefits.”

For example, Charles Darwin, who on an early geological expedition failed to appreciate the possibility, obvious in retrospect, that a valley had been formed by a glacier. “It was a striking incidence of how easy it is to overlook phenomena, however conspicuous, before they have been observed by anyone,” Darwin wrote later.

To Thompson-Schill, the incident illustrated “the notion that the adult brain is exquisitely able to see the world the way we think it’s supposed to be seen, which is exactly the ‘filtering’ mechanism that Dr. Carson just described.”

The frontal lobes, particularly the prefrontal cortex, primarily serve this filtering function and are, she noted, the last brain region to mature—typically by age 20-22. “If cognitive control is only a good thing, why does it take so long to develop?” she asked.

In children, she suggested, the advantage of strong cognitive control is outweighed by disadvantages; it might interfere with “things that children do differently from adults, for which we often use positive words like discovery, exploration, creativity, and play”

Thompson-Schill described studies in her lab where normal adults were asked to come up with novel uses for familiar objects like rubber gloves and drinking straws. When the subjects’ frontal lobe function was temporarily weakened by small externally-applied electrical currents, their answers become more inventive.

A More Balanced View

Defining creativity as “finding unity in what appears to be diversity,” Kenneth Heilman, M.D., professor of neurology at University of Florida and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, argued for a more nuanced, global approach.

Much research, including his own, links right cerebral hemisphere areas to capacities related to creativity, he said. “But artists use both hemispheres: they cooperate with and inhibit each other.” That the corpus callosum, the white matter tract that connects them, tends to be smaller in more creative artists, “allows each hemisphere to independently develop [its] skills” while still communicating with the other.”

Heilman took particular exception to the implication that frontal lobe activity simply inhibits creativity. “The frontal lobes are critical for creativity; they allow divergent thinking,” he said. “Patients with frontal lobe damage do horribly on divergent thinking tasks.”

He emphasized that “there are elements of creativity other than coming up with an original idea. You need intentional goal-oriented systems” to bring creative work to fruition, and here mental illness can present an insuperable barrier.

In the subsequent discussion, speakers agreed that moderation was essential. The experiments she had described, Thompson-Schiff said, involved “slightly turning down the cognitive filter within the normal range of variation, not taking it away completely. Because a little helps doesn’t mean a lot is better.”

Real Patients, Real Art

As “a practitioner, not a theoretician of brain filters, who has worked for 30 years among people who have mental illness and are creative,” Janos Marton, Ph.D., had a different perspective on the evening’s theme. Marton co-founded and directs the Living Museum, a large space at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, NY, “where people come and create art… an oasis where it’s alright to be ‘mad’ or ‘crazy.'”

In his experience, Marton said, mental illness facilitates an “authenticity” that eludes many artists. The people he works with “don’t have the desire to create beautiful or political things; art just comes to them and they have no control over it. They can sit for hours, immersing themselves in what they are doing.”

Willem van Genk Untitled (Zagreb), 1995 Collection De Stadshof, Museum Dr. Guislain, Ghent,  Photo: Guido Suykens, Ghent

Willem van Genk
Untitled (Zagreb), 1995
Collection De Stadshof, Museum Dr. Guislain, Ghent,
Photo: Guido Suykens, Ghent

Mental illness presents something else that many artists lack: time. “Patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder too often sit around doing nothing. They have time to work at art and get better and better at it.”

From a clinical perspective, “doing art allows people to change their identity from mental patient to artist—a tremendously therapeutic leap,” he said.

Asked whether “outsider art” like the work of Living Museum attendees bears comparison to mainstream productions, Marton replied that “art is art” and such questions essentially involve “the politics of the art world.”

“Outsider art? That means art outside Manhattan,” he quipped.

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