When creative genius and madness collide


Have you ever entered a room and been completely distracted by the noises you hear (the whir of the fans, the buzz of a projector) that you cannot concentrate? Those noises, although minute in actuality, consume all your cognitive resources and attention, and you find yourself unable to think about anything else. Say while you’re taking a test or listening to a lecturing professor. It could even happen right as you enter a room and you are adjusting to a new environment. It happens all the time, but after a brief period we habituate to these sounds and no longer notice them. Imagine what it would be like if you continued to these subtleties in your environment, no matter how long you had been there.

Research on cognitive processing from Northwestern University by Darya L. Zabelina and her colleagues published in Neuropsychologia suggests that highly creative people struggle with this. In a phenomenon known as “sensory gating”, we are able to determine how much information from our environment enters our awareness. However, the research suggests, some people have “leaky” sensory gates, so they struggle to shut out distracting information. As it turns out, this tends to be the case with creative people. Why? Research suggests a theory positing that the leaky sensory gate allows for the opportunity to perceive and then assimilate information that is less closely related, thereby producing ideas that are more creative (due to the ability to connect more distantly related concepts). A leaky sensory gate allows a person to consider more information, information that most people wouldn’t even notice. Some creative geniuses throughout history who were known to have been extremely sensitive to noise include Charles Darwin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Marcel Proust, and Anton Chekov. (Interestingly enough, all of these were notable writers in some capacity.)

However, there is a catch. It is possible that this same characteristic that produces such incredible genius may also be associated with vulnerabilities to some serious mental illnesses, especially schizophrenia. After all, reduced ability to tune out information from one’s environment (also called lateral inhibition) has been associated with schizophrenia and schizotypal personalities. So, there is a possibility that leaky sensory gating may be a common “risk factor” between psychopathy and creative achievement. It has been suggested that some people with schizophrenia may have a greater chance of making creative connections than people without schizophrenia due to their potential to perceive and integrate more information. This could be suggested of Isaac Newton, as it has been suggested that he suffered from schizophrenia. The same could be said for John Nash, a mathematical genius and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 who became the subject of the book and movie, both entitled “A Beautiful Mind” that chronicled his descent into schizophrenia before receiving treatment.

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If this is the case, then it represents a collision between creative genius and serious mental illness that has been an age-old topic of debate dating back to antiquity. This article says that the ancient Greeks considered both populations as “having been touched by the gods.”

2 thoughts on “When creative genius and madness collide

  1. npalacio

    I think the connection between creativeness and mental illness is very interesting. This research definitely seems to show some link between the two, that they may both be caused by . What I would definitely be interested to know is how much mental illness affects a person’s ability to be creative. For instance , you mentioned John Nash and he has said he had could not do the same level of mathematical work on medication, that he could while off it. However, the artists Vincent Van Gogh was said to have been unable to produce painting while going through manic depressive episodes. There seems to be evidence to support mental illness being a help and a hindrance to creativity. Maybe there is no definitive answer and it depends on the person.

    1. jfreud Post author

      I’m very interested in that line of research as well. I agree, it’s probably very possible that it depends a great deal on individual differences, but it would be very interesting to see more research on that particular issue. I also wonder how that research would be set up.

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