Oct. 19, 2003.
New insight into madness and great art

The idea that there is a thin line between creativity and madness has been around for centuries.

But now, for the first time, there's some insight into why the two might be mirror images of each other.

The list of great artists who might have suffered from some sort of mental illness is almost endless: Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, Lord Byron, Sylvia Plath, Georgia O'Keeffe and Virginia Woolf are only the tip of the iceberg.

One of the most striking examples is composer Robert Schumann. He and many of his family suffered from depression — two committed suicide — and his musical output parallels his cycles of mania and depression.

During manic episodes in 1840 and 1849, Schumann composed more than 20 works in each year. In years when he was depressed, he produced nothing.

Until a few decades ago, suggestions that creativity was often associated with mental problems were anecdotal.

Since the 1970s, however, there has been a series of studies establishing an unusually high rate of mental illness, especially bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression), among highly creative individuals.

The frustrating thing about this apparent connection between certain kinds of mental illness and creativity has been the lack of a mechanism. What is it that links the two?

Now, a team of psychologists, including Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto, has found what might be an important connector.

The discovery centres on an unconscious mental process called latent inhibition. This is a filtering device, a way of screening out sensory information that experience has shown to be irrelevant.

There is far too much data pouring into our brains every second; latent inhibition is a way of dumping the least important of that before it even becomes available for consideration. It isn't anything very high-level; many animals have it as well.

What makes latent inhibition interesting is that certain people have less of it — that is, they admit more information into their brains, information that other brains might deem unimportant. Two such groups of humans are schizophrenics and highly creative individuals.

(John Nash, the Nobel laureate whose struggle with schizophrenia was portrayed in the film A Beautiful Mind, lived in both camps.)

The fact that schizophrenics have lowered latent inhibition has been established for some time and seems to make sense: The schizophrenic brain is overwhelmed with information, leading it to the delusions, hallucinations and disordered thought characteristic of the illness.

But the idea that creative individuals might share that lowered latent inhibition is new.

The team of psychologists that authored the recent report found that students who either scored strongly on tests of creativity or already had significant creative achievements to their credit also tended to have lowered latent inhibition.

So they, like the schizophrenics, are exposed to more sensory information.

But the study found they had something else as well: high IQs.

While IQ scores no longer are considered the only good measure of intelligence, there is strong evidence that brains with high IQs deal with incoming data more efficiently and more quickly. Brain scans have shown that people with high IQs activate unique areas of the brain even when doing something completely passive, like watching a video.

In this case, it makes sense that a high IQ might deal with an excess of information rather than succumbing to it.

If creativity is a way of linking together disparate pieces of information to make something new, then cranking up the amount of incoming information might be the ideal thing: It gives the creative brain more to work with, even as it gives the psychosis-prone brain too much to handle.

Obviously, there is much more still to explain. For one thing, latent inhibition has been associated mostly with schizophrenia, but bipolar disorder is much more commonly linked with creative genius.

Also, this study doesn't explain why mental illness and creativity would surface in the same person. What would be happening in a single brain that could tip the balance first one way, then another?

But there are always more questions — this is an intriguing first step.
Jay Ingram hosts the Daily Planet show on the Discovery Channel.