By Nancy C. Andreasen
A leading neuroscientist who has spent decades studying creativity shares her research on where genius comes from, whether it is dependent on high IQ—and why it is so often accompanied by mental illness.
As a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who studies creativity, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many gifted and high-profile subjects over the years, but Kurt Vonnegut—dear, funny, eccentric, lovable, tormented Kurt Vonnegut—will always be one of my favorites. Kurt was a faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s, and participated in the first big study I did as a member of the university’s psychiatry department. I was examining the anecdotal link between creativity and mental illness, and Kurt was an excellent case study.
He was intermittently depressed, but that was only the beginning. His mother had suffered from depression and committed suicide on Mother’s Day, when Kurt was 21 and home on military leave during World War II. His son, Mark, was originally diagnosed with schizophrenia but may actually have bipolar disorder. (Mark, who is a practicing physician, recounts his experiences in two books, The Eden Express and Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, in which he reveals that many family members struggled with psychiatric problems. “My mother, my cousins, and my sisters weren’t doing so great,” he writes. “We had eating disorders, co-dependency, outstanding warrants, drug and alcohol problems, dating and employment problems, and other ‘issues.’ ”)
While mental illness clearly runs in the Vonnegut family, so, I found, does creativity. Kurt’s father was a gifted architect, and his older brother Bernard was a talented physical chemist and inventor who possessed 28 patents. Mark is a writer, and both of Kurt’s daughters are visual artists. Kurt’s work, of course, needs no introduction.
For many of my subjects from that first study—all writers associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—mental illness and creativity went hand in hand. This link is not surprising. The archetype of the mad genius dates back to at least classical times, when Aristotle noted, “Those who have been eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.” This pattern is a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s plays, such as when Theseus, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, observes, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact.” John Dryden made a similar point in a heroic couplet: “Great wits are sure to madness near allied, / And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”
Compared with many of history’s creative luminaries, Vonnegut, who died of natural causes, got off relatively easy. Among those who ended up losing their battles with mental illness through suicide are Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, John Berryman, Hart Crane, Mark Rothko, Diane Arbus, Anne Sexton, and Arshile Gorky.
My interest in this pattern is rooted in my dual identities as a scientist and a literary scholar. In an early parallel with Sylvia Plath, a writer I admired, I studied literature at Radcliffe and then went to Oxford on a Fulbright scholarship; she studied literature at Smith and attended Cambridge on a Fulbright. Then our paths diverged, and she joined the tragic list above. My curiosity about our different outcomes has shaped my career. I earned a doctorate in literature in 1963 and joined the faculty of the University of Iowa to teach Renaissance literature. At the time, I was the first woman the university’s English department had ever hired into a tenure-track position, and so I was careful to publish under the gender-neutral name of N. J. C. Andreasen.
Not long after this, a book I’d written about the poet John Donne was accepted for publication by Princeton University Press. Instead of feeling elated, I felt almost ashamed and self-indulgent. Who would this book help? What if I channeled the effort and energy I’d invested in it into a career that might save people’s lives? Within a month, I made the decision to become a research scientist, perhaps a medical doctor. I entered the University of Iowa’s medical school, in a class that included only five other women, and began working with patients suffering from schizophrenia and mood disorders. I was drawn to psychiatry because at its core is the most interesting and complex organ in the human body: the brain.
I have spent much of my career focusing on the neuroscience of mental illness, but in recent decades I’ve also focused on what we might call the science of genius, trying to discern what combination of elements tends to produce particularly creative brains. What, in short, is the essence of creativity? Over the course of my life, I’ve kept coming back to two more-specific questions: What differences in nature and nurture can explain why some people suffer from mental illness and some do not? And why are so many of the world’s most creative minds among the most afflicted? My latest study, for which I’ve been scanning the brains of some of today’s most illustrious scientists, mathematicians, artists, and writers, has come closer to answering this second question than any other research to date.