Here's to the Oddballs

At Scientific American, creativity researcher and cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman writes about the connection between certain kinds of disorders and creativity, flagging a study linking "artistic engagement and the genes underlying schizophrenia and bipolar disorder."


To be sure, the effects are really small (the genes explain less than 1% of the variation in artistic engagement), and the results do not mean that if one has a mental illness they are destined for creativity (or that creative people are destined for mental illness). Nevertheless, the results are consistent with other solid studies showing there is a real and meaningful link between the schizophrenia spectrum and artistic creativity (see herehere, here, and here). Indeed, the supplemental data shows that the strongest relationships are between the genes underlying schizophrenia and engagement with music, the visual arts, and writing.

So there's something here worth exploring. But what exactly is going on?

Describing related research of his that details some of his findings on the subject, Kaufman emphasizes that autistic-like or schizophrenia-like characteristics can be found all along the personality spectrum. For his allied study, he explores "negative schizotypy" (autistic-like) and "positive schizotypy" (schizophrenia-like) traits, finding, like the more recent study he references, some correlation between the latter and creative expression. It's also consistent with prior research of his that identifies "an openness to experience" as being a crucial element of the creative mind.

That creativity, of course, is not restricted to the "artistic variety," and Kaufman lists historic figures - Einstein, Newton and Darwin - who exhibited characteristics of positive and negative schizotypy. Given a history of being marginalized because of his supposed learning deficits, Kaufman is particularly allergic to labeling, and much to my satisfaction ends the piece with a small tribute to the "oddballs" of the world.

Reading "How is Creativity Differentially Related to Schizophrenia and Autism?" I was reminded of autistic savant Daniel Tammet, whose hushed IdeaFestival 2010 talk to a rapt crowd remains for this introvert a moment that won't soon be forgotten. A portion of that talk can be seen above.

So, yes! "Here's to the oddballs." We need every kind of mind.

Stay curious.