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Decoding Creativity – It’s In the Genes!

15 December 2014

From BrainBlogger:

What do Beethoven and the violinist who plays in the subway for a few dollars of tips share? What’s common between Vincent Van Gogh and the spraycan-wielding graffiti artists who paint the walls of your city with their bold artwork? Creativity? Yes, but the similarities go deeper. According to scientists and psychologists, these artists share a set or two of similar “creativity” genes.

Creative people are wired differently to their non-creative brethren. The difference is not only in the presence or absence of certain genes but also in the structural characteristics of their brains.

For decades, scientists have been tinkering with the idea that genes may have a role to play in developing creative abilities in individuals. The association described above was suggested in a study of 300,000 people with mental illnesses carried out by scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. According to the results of this study, people suffering from severe neuropsychiatric illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia tend to display enhanced creativity compared to mentally healthy individuals. A significant percentage of the mentally ill subjects in this study were engaged in creative and artistic professions. The study discovered that their first-degree healthy relatives were also more likely to be engaged in creative occupations. This suggests that although mental illness may not be hereditary, creative genes may run in families.

These findings add more fuel to the “nature versus nurture” debate, but the scientists do not negate the role of nurturing in developing creativity in individuals. They just claim some people are born more creatively-endowed than others.

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Recently, a study was carried out on members from five multigenerational families and 172 unrelated individuals with proven musical aptitude and creativity. The subjects in the study were selected after testing them for their ability to compose, improvise and arrange music as well as judge pitch and timing. This study suggests a link between several genes and musical ability and creativity. The study discovered that individuals with musical abilities had genomic variants or copy number variations (CNVs) — either they did not have some genes or had duplicate copies.

Incidentally, CNVs have been linked to the cognitive performance of individuals suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders. The findings from another study indicate the role of CNVs in increasing the risks of a person developing bipolar affective disorder or schizophrenia. Does this surprise you? After all, the belief that geniuses are mad is quite popular.

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Several other scientific studies indicate the positive association between the structure of the brain, the goings-on in there, and creative genius in individuals.

A study by scientists at the Cornell University found that creative individuals like artists, musicians, and writers tend to have a peculiarity in the structure of their brains — they have a smaller mass of corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is a cluster of nerve fibers that connect the two hemispheres of the brain.

But scientists and psychologists are not surprised by these findings, and they have an explanation.

Creative individuals are characterized by their ability to think out-of-the-box. It is essentially divergent thinking that lets them explore many different solutions and connect the dots to come up with innovative and creative ideas. A smaller corpus callosum decreases the connectivity between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Left to itself, each hemisphere gets the chance to specialize, so ideas can develop more freely and fully. The scientists call this process “incubation of ideas.”

After poking and prodding around the brain to find answers, scientists have discovered more brain features linked to creative ability. The brains of creative individuals tend to show increased gray matter especially in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) region, an area that is associated with awareness. More gray matter is linked to increased intelligence.

The study also found evidence that creative individuals tend to have elevated serotonin levels in their brains due to their particular genetic make-up. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that increases connectivity between cells.

Link to the rest at BrainBlogger


6 Comments to “Decoding Creativity – It’s In the Genes!”

  1. The study also found evidence that creative individuals tend to have elevated serotonin levels in their brains due to their particular genetic make-up. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that increases connectivity between cells.

    If I’m not mistaken (someone correct me if I’m wrong), this statement explains why anti-depressants stifle creativity. Anti-depressants are selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI for short).

    Very interesting article that makes a lot of sense…especially since our oldest daughter is the mistress of creative expression since she was a toddler.

    • I’ll correct you, since you are wrong.

      First, depression is associated with lower serotonin levels. SSRIs work by taking people with low serotonin levels, and partially blocking the metabolic process that eliminates serotonin from the system. The brain still does not produce very much serotonin, but it lasts longer and therefore the patient’s serotonin level goes up.

      Second, SSRIs are only one of several major families of antidepressants. The others work on different aspects of brain chemistry.

      Third, it is an open question whether, in fact, antidepressants do stifle creativity. In severely depressed patients, such as myself, creative activity is frequently impossible without the help of medication to relieve the depression. I don’t know of any research to suggest that medication reduces creativity in other cases.

      By the way, the study in question assumes points not in evidence. It makes the classic error of confusing correlation with causation, and then assuming that the causation goes one way and not the other. Creative activity is highly pleasurable for most people; that is why people pursue it as a hobby, instead of regarding it as horrible drudge-work. Serotonin is one of the chemicals involved in the neurological response to pleasure, and pleasurable experiences normally cause one’s serotonin level to rise. (That is why mildly to moderately depressive patients are encouraged to seek out harmless pleasures, such as listening to music, reading good books, watching things that make them laugh, or for that matter, being sexually active when they can do so without risking harm.) Creative people are bound to have higher serotonin levels because they get pleasure by doing creative things.

      Maybe there is a genetic component, but you could not prove it in this way, because the actual, known direction of causality is the wrong way round. It is like saying that puddles on the street cause rain.

      • Doctor or pharmacist?

        I made the comment because so many other writers besides myself have discussed the repercussions on creativity of being on anti-depressants. I did forget about MAOs until I looked further, but I know for me that, while I might feel very good on SSRIs, I can’t write with the same focus and fervor as I do when not on SSRIs, which is why I’ll do everything I can to avoid needing medication.

  2. “A significant percentage of the mentally ill subjects in the study were engaged in creative and artistic professions.”

    Reminded me of an exhibit of weird and mostly abstract paintings to which my husband commented, “Well, that explains it. They’re the product of diseased minds.”

  3. So much for a ‘growth mindset’.

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