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In search of the troubled genius The largest investigation of its kind has provided compelling new evidence about the links between creativity and mental disorder (Journal of Psychiatric Research: The stereotype of the troubled creative genius remains strong in the popular imagination, based in part on biographies of prominent individuals, past and present, with known mental health problems. There have been some relevant studies too, most notably Nancy Andreasen’s seminal work based on interviews with 30 writers in the 1980s, which revealed they had higher rates of affective disorder than controls ( For this massive new study, Simon Kyaga at the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden and his colleagues took advantage of the comprehensive population records kept in their country. This allowed them to compare the occupation of over a million mental health patients over a 40-year period, as well as the occupational profile of their relatives, against the occupational profiles of millions of healthy controls. Overall, people in creative professions, such as musicians, artists and scientists, were no more likely to have a mental health diagnosis than people in non-creative professions, such as accountants, with one exception – bipolar disorder. Meanwhile, the first degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and possibly autism, were more likely than healthy controls to be in creative professions. These relatives

share 50 per cent of their genes on average with the patients and often exhibit milder, ‘subclinical’ signs of mental disorder. Kyaga told us this result

Authors, compared with controls, were more likely to be diagnosed with mental illness

was consistent with an inverted-U model, ‘where increases in psychopathology to a certain extent leads to increased creativity, while further increases reduce creativity’. In contrast with creative professions

as a whole, focusing only on authors revealed a far stronger link with mental illness. Authors, compared with controls, were more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, drug abuse, and to take their own lives. Rates of suicide were also higher among authors without a mental illness. An obvious shortcoming of the research is the reliance on people’s professions as a proxy for creativity. As the researchers point out, it’s possible that some people with mental health problems turn to creative work, not because they are exceptionally creative, but perhaps as a coping mechanism. This might be especially the case for authors, who are able to work outside of the constraints associated with many more conventional roles. ‘I do not think that the disorder in itself is beneficial for creativity, but rather that something (personality traits, genes, etc.) makes some individuals predisposed to both creative behaviour and to an increased likelihood of suffering from psychiatric disorder,’ Kyaga said. ‘The disorder in itself is the destructive consequence of this predisposition.’ Kyaga added that more research was needed on the mechanisms – biological and/or psychological – that underlie any putative links between psychopathology and creativity – something he and his colleagues are planning for the future. CJ

ROUGH JUSTICE FOR BRAIN-INJURED OFFENDERS? A new psychologist-led report commissioned by the Barrow Cadbury Trust has highlighted the high prevalence of brain injury among young offenders. In Repairing Shattered Lives: Brain Injury and Its Implications for Criminal Justice (, chartered psychologist Professor Huw Williams, chair of the Society’s Division of Neuropsychology, cites evidence that 60 per cent of young offenders in England report having suffered a brain injury (three to six times the rate in the general population). He calls for far greater awareness throughout the criminal justice system about the implications of acquired brain injury. Other findings mentioned by Williams include the fact that children who suffer brain injuries prior to age 12 may be at particularly increased risk for offending


behaviour; and that rates of brain injury may be even higher among female prisoners than among male prisoners. Professor Williams is also co-author of a report published recently by the Children’s Commissioner in England: Nobody Made the Connection: The Prevalence of Neurodisability in Young People Who Offend ( ‘Magistrates, judges, and prosecutors should be trained and supported to understand the ways in which neurodisability might affect capacity to engage in the legal processes in court, and the appropriateness of particular sentences and interventions,’ the report advises. Other chartered psychologists involved in both reports include Simone Fox (University of Oxford) and Susan Young (IoP). CJ

vol 25 no 12

december 2012

The Psychologist December 2012  
The Psychologist December 2012  

This is a preview of the December issue of The Psychologist, published by the British Psychological Society. The whole issue will be availab...