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Is Depression, or Mental Illness, More Prevalent in Geniuses?

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The connection between geniuses and mental disorders is a debate that has covered years of research performed by scientists. The side who supports the connection provides anecdotal evidence, such as a family member who had a certain mental disorder is somehow inherited through the next generation. Research conducted showed desirable results. Tests given to those with creative-related jobs were more likely to have mental disorders. The opposing side claims that there is not enough concise scientific research and that creativity is not limited to the mentally ill. There are suggestions that are proposed to find a consensus between the two sides, one of the suggestions being further research into the issue. With further study, there is a possibility that there will be enough research to bridge this conflict and unlocked discoveries of genetics and the human mind.

The “tortured genius” trope has been around for as long as one can remember. Television shows and theatrical films display tortured geniuses through fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes. The idea of the tortured genius in fiction has perhaps come from real-life figures, such as artists Frida Kahlo and Jackson Pollock and authors Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy. These people used their sorrows to create beautiful works of art. Even today, there are celebrities who struggle with depression, such as late comedian Robin Williams. The supposed link between depression (or mental illnesses) and geniuses is a topic that has been researched by many scientists no matter the era, and it has been argued ever since. The connection between geniuses and depression will be discussed in this paper and the argument of both perspectives involving this issue. The impact this link has will also be discussed.

Through most of the compiled research, the origins of the connection between geniuses and depression were not specified. It seems as if the idea was just brought up upon because of the exposure of the trope to the public; it had enabled people to think that it was more common because of the prevalence of famous figures having depression and other mental illnesses (Klein, 2014). In fact, there were many historical figures that had depression. Frida Kahlo suffered from a severe traffic accident at a young age, and in turn, used her pain to create paintings that drew inspiration from Mexican culture. Countless other artists and authors experienced bouts of mental disorders, ranging from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia. The problem with this issue is that there are conflicting sides that disagree with each other. One side believes there is a link between geniuses and depression. The other side claims that it is just a myth and that there is no concise research to support the connection.

The supporting side backed its claims with anecdotal evidence, scientific research, and experiments that have been performed. Most of the research gave desirable results; those with creative jobs were most likely to have some form of a mental illness. In Sweden, Simon Kyaga of the Karolinska Institute, a medical university, and a team of researchers conducted an experiment by tracking 1.2 million Swedes and their relatives using a psychiatric patient registry. The patients had an array of mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and depression. Those who worked in creative fields were 8% more likely to have bipolar disorder. Writers were 121% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder as well, and 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general public. The individuals in creative careers had relatives that were more likely to have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia, and autism. This information implies that mental disorders could be hereditary. A similar experiment was performed by Keri Szaboles, a psychiatrist at Semmelweis University. He gave a creativity test to 128 participants and found that the ones who had the greatest creativity had a gene that was associated with mental illnesses. Even though there seems to be a link between imaginative individuals and mental disorders, there still does not seem to be an answer as to why it exists (Adams, 2014).

Hans Jurgens Eysenck was an English psychologist who created a personality scale called the PEN scale, which showcased traits of psychoticism (traits associated with psychotic), extraversion, and neuroticism. For psychoticism, his model shows how psychotic traits were affiliated with creativity. Those with aggressive behaviors (usually related to psychotic mentality) in relation to psychoticism were associated with creative-related work (Fink, Benedek, Unterrainer, Papousek, & Weiss, 2014).

Figure 1: 3-D graph with E (extraversion) on the left-right x-axis, N (neuroticism) on the up-down y-axis and P (psychoticism) on the near-far z-axis. The PEN scale, by Hans J. Eysenck, 1975, http://www.psychologywizard.net/personality-ao1-ao2-ao3.html. Copyright 1975 by Hans J. Eysenck.

See Figure 1 for the PEN scale. It shows that those who are emotionally unstable have psychoticism, while those who are emotionally stable have high impulse control (no psychoticism). The downfall of this theory is that it has been objected because of psychoticism being “too vague”. Eysenck combined many different types of people together as having “psychotic” personalities (The P.E.N. theory, n.d.). Other evidence, such as self-generated thoughts (i.e. daydreaming) tend to lead to misery in one’s life, but such thoughts were also connected to planning expertise and the “ability to delay gratification” (Pappas, 2015).

The opposing side claimed that most research conducted is “selective” and that there is “not enough” information to truly prove the connection. Like mentioned previously in this paper, the opposing side states that the reason why depression seems more prevalent in geniuses is that that prevalence is referring to famous figures, making it seem more common to the public than it really is (Klein, 2014). There was not enough concise data to support the connection between creativity and depression. Mental illness is not rare at all, in fact, it is very common. 10% of the world population has some form of a mental disorder. That percentage makes up nearly hundreds of millions of people (Dietrich, 2014).

Scott Kaufman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, stated that those with neurotic behaviors are indeed prone to have anxiety and stress, but not creativity. He believes that anyone can be creative, neurotic or not. He mentions a review of an opinion piece of a study performed by a group of researchers. The review said that their correlations of neuroticism with creativity were weak. The researchers used past research to support their claim, one of them a study of advertising-industry employees that showed those working in creative roles scored higher on neuroticism than employees in “noncreative roles.” Another study that the researchers referenced revealed that individuals in creative professions had a higher risk of psychiatric illness and suicide. To further support his opposition to the possible connection, Kaufman states that he and his colleagues gave cognitive and personality tests to 1,035 participants. The result he found was that there was no correlation at all. The only personality trait found in the research with a prediction to creative activities was an openness to experience, in other words, the drive to gain more thoughtful, new experiences (2016).

Shelley Carson of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience stated that there could be a way to reach a consensus with both sides by suggesting ways to advance the issue. First, people who have mental disorders must exist (which is proven true by some studies, even if flawed). Second, there must be different methods to thoroughly research into this issue. She explains that even if those with mental disorders are not highly creative, there is no research to back this up (from the time she wrote the article). She follows this up by mentioning that there is a chance that there are millions of individuals out there who are very creative and have mental disorders. She also mentions how creativity is important to human survival; there were strategies developed by people for many different types of problems. Neuroscience may delve more into this issue through two strategies: identifying genetic variations and brain imaging work. Those with depression whose careers demand creativity may have a brain that processes differently from those without depression (2014). Another article had evidence that showed a common pool of persons with extreme temperaments that had high intelligence living in a “nurturing” environment, while those with the same temperaments that had no high intelligence were at higher risk of mental illness (Pediaditakis, 2014).

Even if more research proves this issue to be just a myth, it should still be addressed to a wider audience. This issue may not have as much attention as other ongoing conflicts in the world, but it may still have a significant impact on future generations. With depression rates increasing each year, those millions of people may be filled mostly with highly imaginative thinkers, including children and teenagers. A consensus for both sides of the debate will be decided by suggestions so that a clear conclusion can come about for this issue, whether there is a link or not. This subject should have further research so that if there is indeed a connection that involved genetics and the brain, why they could be associated with each other can be answered. With research, there could be many discoveries about genetics and the human brain that the public and scientists will be able to uncover for the whole world to witness.

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