Nancy Andreasen wrote a piece for The Atlantic this month called “Secrets of the Creative Brain.” It’s a must read for Stuff of Genius fans, as Andreasen recollects her years of research on the connections between mental illness and creativity. Many of our own posts and videos touch upon this relationship and Andreasen herself points out that it’s not an unusual idea given the archetype of the mad genius. Her research has focused on the neuroscience of mental illness and more recently the “science of genius.” The piece goes in depth into her latest study, comparing brain scans of creative people from a variety of scientific and artistic backgrounds, including celebrities like Kurt Vonnegut and George Lucas.
After a thorough literary review, Andreasen hypothesized that creatives would have an increased rate of schizophrenia in their family members, without being afflicted themselves. She also looked into whether creativity was hereditary.
One of her initial studies argued that creative genius was not the same as scoring well on an intelligence test. So to measure creativity, Andreasen turned to magnetic resonance imaging. With this tool she captures images of brain activity while her subjects perform simple tasks. Years of her work were spent designing exercises that could identify the unique features of a creative brain.
What she found was that “association cortices” in the brain are where “eureka moments” occur. Interestingly, these are most active when the subject is at rest. Moments of creative genius seem to strike after long periods of preparation and relaxation, such as when you take a nap.
Once she could measure creativity, Andreasen confirmed that geniuses and their relatives have a higher rate of mental illness which includes bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety or panic disorder, and alcoholism. She has also found evidence supporting her theory that creative people are more likely to have relatives with schizophrenia.
As I was reviewing Andreasen’s piece, The New York Times Magazine came out with a feature on comedian Maria Bamford, who I regard highly when we’re talking about creative genius. As an example of Andeasen’s research, Bamford has struggled with mental illness and her work observes her friends and family doing the same. She’s a deep thinker and persistent autodidact, constantly teaching herself about mental health. In the article she recognizes genetics’ role in her condition, commenting on the experiences of her parents and great-grandmother.
Many find comfort in Bamford’s unique humor relating her ordeals. Likewise, Andreasen’s research may bring peace of mind to other creative geniuses struggling with their demons while still pushing to produce innovative breakthroughs in art and science.