Current Directions: Creativity and Schizotypy
There has been a shift in recent years regarding the type of psychopathology at the center of the “mad genius” debate. While early studies focused on mood disorders, many current lines of research are investigating the relationship between creativity and schizotypy—a continuous, personality variable that describes proneness to psychosis (Claridge & McDonald, 2009). Nettle (2006) explains that factor analysis of traits associated with schizophrenia and schizotypal/borderline personality disorders reliably load onto four factors: Unusual Experiences (involves positive symptoms of schizophrenia such as hallucinations, magical thinking, and perceptual aberrations), Cognitive Disorganization (difficulty concentrating, moodiness), Introvertive Anhedonia (a negative symptom like the anhedonia described for schizophrenia), and Impulsive Nonconformity (violent, reckless, and self-abusive behaviors). The Oxford-Liverpool Inventory of Feelings and Experiences (O-LIFE) is one of the best-validated and most often used measures of schizotypy, and it contains 104 items relating to the traits of interest.
Nettle (2006) describes two theories pertaining to the nature of the creativity-schizotypy linkage. One suggests that the relationship is an inverted U shape; in this model, creativity first increases along with schizotypy, but then it decreases as the psychosis becomes severe (which is consistent with our discussion of mood disorders, in which debilitating depression actually stifles creativity). An alternative comes from the two-factor approach of Barron (1972, as cited in Nettle, 2006), who argued that creativity results from a combination of psychopathology and ‘ego strength’, a measure that includes resilience, self-control, and ability to cope with stress. Ego strength would therefore serve as the mediator that determines whether schizotypy turns into psychopathology or creative output. Because Schuldberg (1990, as cited in Nettle, 2006) found that positive schizotypy symptoms correlate positively with creativity while negative symptoms correlate negatively with creativity, ‘ego strength’ should increase as negative symptoms decrease. For the O-LIFE, then, creativity should show a positive association with Unusual Experiences but a negative association with Introvertive Anhedonia. To investigate this possibility, Nettle (2006) administered the O-LIFE to participants from the general population, psychiatric patients, and a group of creative individuals.
In order to examine the differences between creative domains, Nettle (2006) included mathematicians as well as poets and visual artists in his study. Mathematicians have been shown to score more highly on measures of autistic traits and convergent thinking (see Nettle, 2006, for relevant citations), which seems to be the opposite personality profile of most creative individuals, who often score highly on divergent thinking tasks. Thus, Nettle (2006) hypothesized that the mathematicians in his study might show patterns opposite to those of the artistic groups (i.e. low Unusual Experiences and possibly higher Introvertive Anhedonia). Using self-report data, participants were categorized into four groups based on level of artistic creativity (in poetry and visual art): non-participant, hobbyist, serious, and professional. All participants were also categorized as mathematicians or non-mathematicians. Finally, based on questionnaire responses, participants were also divided into four psychopathology categories: none, non-psychotic affective conditions (e.g. depression and anxiety), schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Note that psychopathology and creativity group categorizations were independent of one another, so a particular individual could be simultaneously a serious visual artist and a bipolar patient (Nettle, 2006).
Results of Nettle’s (2006) study provided some support for the two-factor model of Barron (1972). Creative groups scored as high as schizophrenic patients on Unusual Experiences and Cognitive Disorganization, but lower than controls on Introvertive Anhedonia, suggesting that “artistic groups and psychiatric patients share divergent thought, but they differ in that the latter are troubled with negative symptoms such as avolition and anhedonia, whilst the former are unusually free of these traits” (p. 886). In addition, as predicted, mathematicians scored significantly lower than controls on the positive symptom dimensions of schizotypy (Unusual Experiences and Cognitive Disorganization) as well as Impulsive Nonconformity, and there was a trend toward higher scores for mathematicians on Introvertive Anhedonia. This supports the hypothesis that mathematicians’ personality profiles have contrasting features to the artistic profile, and the findings are consistent with “Baron-Cohen’s work on systemizing as a core feature of autistic spectrum disorders” (p. 887). Nettle (2006) concludes that these results support the link between vulnerability to psychopathology and artistic creativity, but that further research is needed to understand this association within a broad range of ‘creative’ endeavors (e.g. music and drama, or involvement in the natural sciences).
Claridge, G. & McDonald, A. (2009). An investigation into the relationships between convergent and divergent thinking, schizotypy, and autistic traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 794-799.
Nettle, D. (2006). Schizotypy and mental health amongst poets, visual artists, and mathematicians. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 876-890.