Campus & Community

Creativity tied to mental illness

6 min read

Irrelevance can make you mad

Shelley Carson developed a new test for creativity, which includes asking people what novel things they could do if they had six fingers on their hands. (Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

Ignoring what seems irrelevant to your immediate needs may be good for your mental health but bad for creativity.

Focusing on every sight, sound, and thought that enters your mind can drive a person crazy. It interferes with an animal’s hunt for something to eat, or a busy person’s efforts to sleep. As you might guess, psychologists have a term for ignoring the irrelevant; they call it “latent inhibition.” A team of them at Harvard has discovered that students who score low in this seemingly vital trait are much more likely to be creative achievers than those who excel in putting things out of their minds.

“Scientists have wondered for a long time why madness and creativity seem linked, particularly in artists, musicians, and writers,” notes Shelley Carson, a Harvard psychologist. “Our research results indicate that low levels of latent inhibition and exceptional flexibility in thought predispose people to mental illness under some conditions and to creative accomplishments under others.”

Carson, Jordan Peterson (now at the University of Toronto), and Daniel Higgins did experiments to find out what these conditions might be.

They put 182 Harvard graduate and undergraduate students through a series of tests involving listening to repeated strings of nonsense syllables, hearing background noise, and watching yellow lights on a video screen. (The researchers do not want to reveal details of how latent inhibition was scored because such tests are still going on with other subjects.)

The students also filled out questionnaires about their creative achievements on a new type of form developed by Carson, and they took standard intelligence tests. When all the scores and test results were compared, the most creative students had lower scores for latent inhibition than the less creative.

Some students who scored unusually high in creative achievement were seven times more likely to have low scores for latent inhibition. These low scorers also had high IQs.

“Getting swamped by new information that you have difficulty handling may predispose you to a mental disorder,” Carson says. “But if you have high intelligence and a good working memory, you are more likely to be able to combine bits of new information in creative ways.”

IQ and creativity

Whether IQ tests are the best way to measure intelligence is debatable, but some studies do show a correlation between high IQ and creativity. Such studies conclude that the two increase together up to a score of 120. Beyond that level, little increase in creativity has been found. (The average IQ score of the general population is 100.)

“We didn’t find this,” Carson notes. “We saw creativity increase as IQs climb to 130 (the average score of Harvard students), and even up to 150.”

Bothered by the nebulousness of IQ tests, Carson is seeking to find “more specific functions” that protect creative people from going nuts. Work already done suggests that a good working memory, the capacity to keep in mind many things at once, can serve such a function. “This should help you to better process the increasing information that goes along with low latent inhibition,” Carson explains. “We’re doing more experiments to determine if that is so.”

She and her colleagues also plan to check out ways to reduce the blocking of seeming irrelevance with drugs. Many creative people have touted the value of alcohol and other stimulants, such as amphetamines, for this purpose. Carson wants to find a way to do the same thing without the unwanted side effects of drugs and alcohol. She is investigating nonaddictive drugs and ways to manipulate biorhythms, the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle, with varying exposures to bright light.

Another possibility goes to the different stages of paying more attention to what is around you. First there’s insight, where creative ideas form and which may be enhanced by a buzz of unrelated stimuli. Then comes evaluation and editing, which require focus and concentration. Carson and her colleagues have started testing creative people to see if they can manipulate their attention filter during these different stages.

Creativity and madness

How can people lower their inhibition quotient and increase creativity on their own? There’s really no good answer to that question yet. “We may have identified one of the biological bases of creativity,” Carson says, “but it is only one among many. Creativity also is associated with a variety of personality traits, social and family factors, and direct training.”

There also remain fundamental biological riddles to solve. Cats, rats, mice, pigeons, and other animals show latent inhibition. When they discover something is useless for helping them to survive, ignoring it helps them survive. Then there’s that mysterious connection between psychosis and creativity to probe. “Highly creative people in our studies,” Carson notes, “showed the same latent inhibition patterns found in other studies of schizophrenics.

“Both madness and creativity must involve many different genes,” Carson points out. “It’s not impossible that the two share some of these genes. It’s my hope that future research into this and other areas will help us progress toward silencing the demons of mental disorders that often coexist with the muses of creativity.”

Until then, the situation is cogently expressed by this old joke:

A man is driving past a mental hospital when one of the wheels falls off his car. He stops and recovers the wheel but can’t find the lug nuts to secure it back in place. Just then he notices a man sitting on the curb carefully removing small pebbles from the grass and piling them neatly on the sidewalk.

“What am I going to do?” the man asks aloud. The fellow piling the pebbles looks up, and says, “Take one of the lug nuts from each of the other wheels and use them to put the wheel back on.”

The driver is amazed. “Wow!” he exclaims. “What a brilliant idea. What are you doing in a place like this?” he asks, nodding toward the mental institution.

“Well,” the man answers, “I’m crazy, not stupid.”

“That’s exactly what our research is about,” Carson comments. “It shows that, to be creative, you can be bright and crazy, but not stupid.”