Creativity and mental illness

  • A recent study found that creative people have more genetic markers for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder than everyone else.
  • The media overstated the findings, which only show very weak associations.
  • There is no association between depression and creativity.
  • There is a widespread but unsubstantiated belief that creativity is one step away from insanity.


(gilles chiroleu [CC / Flickr])

‘Scientists find that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are linked to creativity’, blared the Independent.

‘Creative people are more likely to suffer from mental illness, study claims’, trumpeted the Telegraph.

The idea that creativity is linked to insanity is hardly new. More than two millennia ago, Aristotle said, ‘poetry demands a man with a special gift for it, or else one with a touch of madness in him’. I’ve many people holding forth about the supposed link between mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, when they’ve had a drink or two.

So has science finally resolved the issue by proving that being creative is only one step away from insanity?


Icelandic artists

The flurry of headlines was prompted by a study done in Iceland, showing that creative people were relatively likely to have the genetic markers for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The abstract is available online and while the paper is behind a paywall, it is available if linked from Ian Sample’s article in the Guardian, which takes a more measured approach than the Telegraph or the Independent.


Kári Stefánsson, senior author of the Iceland paper, in 2012 (PopTech [CC / Flickr])

The authors took advantage of the fact that a very large number of people in Iceland have had their genomes sequenced. They identified ‘creative individuals’ as those belonging to national artistic societies of actors, dancers, musicians, visual artists and writers.

A number of genetic variants have been associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, so the authors compared how common they were in creatives when compared to the entire population.

The key finding is stated on the website of deCODE, the company that carried out much of the research:

Members of these [creative] organizations were, they found, 17% more likely than non-members to carry these variants.

What is a genetic variant?

So is that settled? Does that mean creative people are 17% crazier than everyone else?

To answer that, we have to be clear about what it means to say a genetic marker is ‘associated’ with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder?


(Victoria Pickering [CC / Flickr])

It simply means that some gene variants are more common in people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. It does not mean that people with those variants automatically have schizophrenia. There are plenty of people who have those markers who are in perfect mental health. Thus being 17% more likely to carry those markers does not mean that creative people are 17% more likely to have schizophrenia, or that they are 17% more crackers than anyone else.

Further, 17% is not very much. You wouldn’t reach for your wallet if you walked past a shop advertising 17% discounts in a sale. It means there will be plenty of authors and artists with no genetic predisposition for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

When the authors posed the question the other way round, asking whether the genetic variants were associated with being creative, they came up with a far less impressive figure: the genetic markers for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder only accounted for 0.39% of the ‘variance in creativity’. If 17% isn’t much, 0.39% is tiny. It’s a 39c discount on a $100 item. Those genes for mental illness aren’t doing much to make people more creative.

That figure wasn’t mentioned on deCODE’s website, or any of the newspaper articles on it that I’ve read. I can’t imagine why.

Swedish artists and accountants

A 2011 Swedish study did show that artists are 50% more likely to have bipolar disorder than scientists or accountants, but again we need to be clear about exactly what that figure means. The study compared creative people, which it defined as artists and scientists, with accountants and auditors, who were apparently the least creative people the authors could think of.


(JustCallMe_♥Bethy♥_ [CC / Flickr])

They don’t give a figure for the prevalence of biploar disorder among the auditors and accountants, but we do know that around 1% of Europeans are bipolar. If we assume that Swedish accountants and auditors are typical Europeans, then saying artists are 50% more likely
to be bipolar than accountants is saying that for every 300 accountants, two have bipolar disorder while out of 300 artists, three have bipolar disorder.

The same study also looked for associations between depression and being an artist, but didn’t find any. Depressive people are no more or less likely to be creative than anyone else.

It’s hardly a reason for someone to call a psychiatrist when you take up a pen or a paintbrush.

When science meets journalism

Yet Camilla Turner of the Telegraph opened her article with:

Creative people are genetically more likely to suffer from mental illness such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, a study suggests.

Why did she write that when it isn’t what the paper actually said?


(Lisa Padilla [CC / Flickr])

Cynical answers first: when I first read that, I thought she hadn’t understood the study. Her page describes her as ‘a reporter…with a particular interest in politics and education’, which doesn’t sound like a great background for understanding genetic variants and odds ratios. Then I looked again at the wording and noticed that phrases like ‘genetically more likely’ and ‘suggests’ make the sentence a little less definitively wrong than I’d interpreted it on first reading.

Implying creative people are likely to be mentally ill makes for a more exciting article than the one I’ve written, and the Telegraph has copies to sell and clicks to bait. Unfortunately it does read as though it’s confirming what the pub philosopher I mentioned above was saying. The one who likes to hold forth about other peoples’ insanity after a couple of drinks. I’m sure you’ve met him too.


Elizabeth Gilbert, who I pontificated about some time ago, said in her TED talk that ‘creative people across all genres, it seems, have this reputation for being enormously mentally unstable’. The key word being ‘reputation’. She then went on to challenge that perception. Even Aristotle drew a distinction between having a gift for poetry and having to depend on his ‘touch of madness’.


(Pascal [CC / Flickr])

Far from showing that such stories are normal for creative people, the Iceland paper actually shows that the large majority of creative people are free of any genetic predilection toward the mental illnesses they looked at.

In Sample’s Guardian article, senior author Kári Stefánsson is quoted as saying:

To be creative, you have to think differently. And when we are different, we have a tendency to be labelled strange, crazy and even insane.

To be labelled.

Not to be.


It’s a critical difference.

If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you’re a creative yourself. How often do you get labelled as insane?

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Posted in Wednesday Pontification
8 comments on “Creativity and mental illness
  1. I have recently written about this in my blog. It is not true that all of creative people are suffering from mental illness. BUT. People with psychotic symptoms often has unusual ideas so that they can expand the boundaries of a particular domain.

    • DJ Cockburn says:

      That may be true, and the research I found only looked at depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia rather than the whole range of mental illnesses and personality disorders. There is another point which I didn’t see mentioned anywhere: there’s a lot more to being creative than having ideas. The ideas have to be developed into a creation, which takes the sort of persistence that mental illness doesn’t lend itself to.

      I’m going to have a look at your blog now!

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