Schizophrenia: A Source of Creativity?

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This young Denver man, who suffers from schizophrenia, is able to use his talent as an artist as a form of therapy and a way to express himself. Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post (Photo By Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

What do John Nash, Vincent Van Gogh, Syd Barrett, and Eduard Einstein (Albert Einstein‘s son) have in common? They all have schizophrenia, and yet, at the same time, show innovative thinking and a comprehensive demonstration of creativity. Schizophrenia makes people have hallucinations, become delusional, and withdraw from social situations. However, at the same time, it makes some patients show their creative side through many artistic avenues. Can their disorder boost their creativity? What mechanisms are at play for such an innate ability? What do they have that those without schizophrenia don’t?

Can Schizophrenia Be A Source of Creativity?

Indeed, A Beautiful Mind

In the Princeton University library, a young Robert Wright is being watched by a strange looking man. When Wright asks who he is, the answer is yet more strange: “He’s a mathematician who went crazy.” Later, 15 years after this first encounter, Wright opens the front of The New York Times and sees the strange man looking back at him again. The “crazy mathematician” had won a Nobel Prize in Economics for “his pioneering analysis of equilibria in the theory of non-cooperative games.” The strange man that had stuck in Wright’s mind all these years was the iconic John Nash.

Although many remember Nash for the equally iconic movie, A Beautiful Mind, his brilliance was first noticed during his days as a Ph.D. student at Princeton University where his mathematical abilities elevated him to top status. Nash had a normal childhood, and, like many kids after World War I, his parents were returning from serving overseas. With an electrical engineer for a father and and an English teacher for a mother, Nash had a rich development in the sciences. He states in his Nobel Prize biography, “By the time I was a student in high school I was reading the classic ‘Men of Mathematics’ by E.T. Bell and I remember succeeding in proving the classic Fermat theorem about an integer multiplied by itself p times where p is a prime.”

In college, Nash first studied chemical engineering but later transferred to mathematics. It was a match made in heaven, as he explains:

“Also the mathematics faculty were encouraging me to shift into mathematics as my major and explaining to me that it was almost impossible to make a good career in America as a mathematician. So I shifted again and became officially a student of mathematics. And in the end I had learned and progressed so much in mathematics that they gave me an M.S. in addition to my B.S. when I graduated.”

Nash’s story seemed to illustrate the breakthrough of another genius in America who would go on to achieve great things. And, indeed, Nash had many accomplishments when working on his Ph.D. at Princeton. He contributed to “a nice discovery relating to manifolds and real algebraic varieties,” while also developing the theory of “non-cooperative games.” Nash had it all, even marrying Alicia Lardé Lopez-Harrison, who he met while on a sabbatical from M.I.T., but bad fortune came for him during these great times of intellectual development.

Nash modestly explains how schizophrenia changed everything:

“The mental disturbances originated in the early months of 1959 at a time when Alicia happened to be pregnant. And as a consequence I resigned my position as a faculty member at M.I.T. and, ultimately, after spending 50 days under ‘observation’ at the McLean Hospital, traveled to Europe and attempted to gain status there as a refugee. I later spent times of the order of five to eight months in hospitals in New Jersey, always on an involuntary basis and always attempting a legal argument for release.”

Schizophrenia would become a big part of Nash’s life in the coming years. He presented traits of paranoia, believing that a communist conspiracy was out to get him. He sent letters to Washington and even thought that he was part of a secret program to stop the communists in the United States. Even his lectures started to become affected, with his 1959 lecture at Columbia University marking the first public visibility of his disorder.

It is because of Nash’s experiences with the disorder that we are talking today about the link between schizophrenia and creativity. Nash was a man that exuded creative thinking when solving game theory, real algebraic geometry, and even when working out classical mathematical problems. These problems were approached in fresh new ways by Nash, which amazed his colleagues. Could it be that his mental disorder made him approach the problems in a new inventive way? What’s nature’s purpose in giving some humans these extraordinary mental capacities of creativity?

How the Brain Arranges Itself to be Creative

Schizophrenia was first described by Emil Kraepelin but was named by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who, in contrast with Kraepelin, who thought that schizophrenia was the early stages of dementia, said that the illness was a splitting of the mind. At least 3 million Americans are diagnosed with schizophrenia, and one percent of the world population has it. People with this disorder present what are called “positive symptoms” and “negative symptoms.” The positive symptoms present different, new behaviors. People tend to have auditory hallucinations and delusions. They feel that they’re being followed, judged and even believe that they’re part of a large conspiracy. Moreover, volition in thinking is present. The negative symptoms are related to social withdrawal and lack of motivation, which make people think that schizophrenics live in a “different world.”

How can people with such pathologies have incredible creative capacities? The first clue is the brain of these patients. Schizophrenics show a loss in grey matter in their cerebral cortex, which is related to excessive pruning in different areas in the brain. Schizophrenics present an excess in the neurotransmitters known as dopamine, which is related to mood, euphoria and bliss. This excess of “blissful” hormones cause schizophrenics to have hallucinogenic experiences. In fact, some drugs for schizophrenia target the dopamine receptors in the brain and reduce the quantity of dopamine released in the schizophrenic brain, in the process, controlling some of the positive symptoms of the disorder. Lately, the dysfunction of glial cells—a cell that supports neurons—has shown some involvement in the development of schizophrenia.

Such effects of schizophrenia lead to less inhibition of the left hemisphere and a greater activation of the right hemisphere. Although the “left brain/right brain” theory is a myth, hemispheric specialization is still true and verifiable. If people don’t have their corpus callosum sectioned, their hemispheres are fairly balanced and work together accordingly, but scientists have shown that in mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, the right hemisphere seems to get more freedom and has a bigger role in tapping into people’s creative potential. The right hemisphere is in charge of putting ideas together, spatial thinking, seeing new combinations, and is always interested in novel stimulus.

Firsthand recollection from neuroanatomist Jill B. Taylor describes the effects of the right hemisphere being loose and how it feels. In her famous book, My Stroke of Insight, Taylor wrote about her left-hemisphere stroke and how it felt for her right-hemisphere have complete control on her:

“Although the ego center of our language centers prefers defining our self as individual and solid, most of us are aware that we are made of trillions of cells, gallons of water, and ultimately everything about us exits in a constant and dynamic state of activity. My left hemisphere had been trained to perceive myself as a solid, separate from others. Now, released from that restrictive circuitry, my right hemisphere relished in its attachment to the eternal flow. I was no longer isolated and alone. My soul was as big as the universe and frolicked with glee in a boundless sea.”

The freedom of the right hemisphere, as Taylor noted, was first present in the art of many mental patients in Europe in early twentieth century. In what has become an unprecedented book, Hans Prinzhorn, a historian and a psychiatrist, published Artistry of the Mentally Ill in 1922. The book illustrated the artistic awakening of his patients, 70 percent of whom suffered from schizophrenia. Eric Kandelin his book The Disordered Mind, described the impact of Prizhorn’s patients and the connection of creativity and mental disorders:

“What makes the art that Prinzhorn collected different from that of other artists, trained or untrained? Schizophrenia, as we know, results in the disordered thought, which detaches an individual from reality. This disturbance in the relation between a person and his or her social environment can lead to striking distortions of outlook, distortions that frequently alter the function of artistry form. Thus, one common characteristic of schizophrenic art is the juxtaposition of unreleased elements. Another is the depiction of delusions and hallucinatory images. Still others are ambiguous images or reassembling of dismembered body parts. The work of each artist is characterized by recurring motifs that spring from his or her unconscious mind.”

Could it be that schizophrenia forms a unique pathway to those unconscious thoughts that we rarely are in contact with? Nash certainly was, and although he had mild schizophrenia, there’s no denying that his divergent thinking was key for his brilliance. Nash wasn’t the only one to have such creative outbursts along with his schizophrenia. As psychiatrist Neel Burton explains, Pink Floyd’s Syn Barrett and legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky had such combinations of mental disorder and creativity. Moreover, famous painter Vincent Van Gogh is believed to have suffered from schizophrenia in a time when the illness wasn’t diagnosed.

On one hand, mother nature seems to restrict these patients from their cognitive abilities and connection to real life. But, on the other, these outbursts of creativity uncover their untapped abilities that most brains don’t have access to. A good portion of patients that had schizophrenia and displayed these kinds of outburst didn’t have any inclination for art. But, as it seems, the liberation of the right hemisphere in combination with the access to unconscious thought and other states of mind are key for such artistic awakenings.

Last Word on Schizophrenia and Creativity

Could future evolution move us in the direction of this sort of creativity being more common? Do atypical brains, like those in schizophrenics, shed light on unknown workings of the brain that we still don’t know? Scientists are still looking for the biological components of creativity. The connection of creativity and schizophrenia could lead us to study more how mental illness can unlock the inner workings of the brain in relation to inventive thinking. As in the past, by using a reductionist model to show the inner workings of how the brain functions, scientists could study patients with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia to lead us in the direction of finding the biological components in the brain that could unlock this sort of creativity in all of us.

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