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When reading the biography of renowned personalities recognized as "geniuses" such as great mathematicians, painters or poets, I was surprised by the fact that a great portion of this population that possess these impressive abilities tend to have Schizophrenia. (For instance the well-known mathematician John Nash).

Is there a proven correlation between schizophrenia (or other mental disorders) and genius, and did this disorder push the cognitive abilities of these personalities to higher limits?

One may claim that these people have developed this disorder as a consequence of being addicted to drugs or some other factors that predispose one toward mental illness. However, the cases that I am interested in are when people developed schizophrenia and then they made the greatest contributions to their fields. I have also noticed similar trends with illnesses such as epilepsy.

All three, "Nietzsche","Van Gogh" and "Guy de Maupassant" were creative despite having a mental illness. Generally speaking, however, is it possible that a mental condition modifies the way our brain functions to improve cognitive skills despite being burdened by the lows of mental illnesses and the side effects from pharmacological treatment of these disorders.

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There is a correlation between schizophrenia and some type of drug addiction, whether this is more noticeable amongst geniuses because of the public attention some may get, or there is a larger proportion of drug taking geniuses, would be interesting to know –  user3543 Nov 1 '13 at 4:31
Kurt Gödel and Georg Cantor were also "geniuses" with some kind of mental "disorder" (loosely speaking) but that doesn't prove any myth about crazy genius. –  Niklas in Stockholm Nov 1 '13 at 13:58
Sounds like you're more interested in mental disorders and intelligence (not just schizophrenia). One factor is that aspects of mental disorders can contribute to creative intelligence. For example, a disordered brain may produce more lateral pattern matching (connecting disparate phenomena), which can in certain circumstances be considered as increased creativity. Or another example, consider latent inhibition (how capable is the brain of ignoring already-processed stimuli). So there are certainly aspects that can contribute to both mental disorder and "measures of intelligence". –  BenCole Nov 4 '13 at 14:18
Also, there are also correlations between increased intelligence and drug use (to counter-set the point of drug use and schizophrenia being correlated). –  BenCole Nov 4 '13 at 14:20
There has been a lot of research on the topic of the correlation between creativity and the schizophrenia. Cf. the special issue of the Creativity Research Journal edited by Louis A. Sass (author of the relevant Madness and Modernism, Harvard University Press, 1992): tandfonline.com/toc/hcrj20/13/1#.U_2makiUTBJ –  José Porcher Aug 27 '14 at 9:37

2 Answers 2

The question you have asked is not a new one. In fact, from the times of classical antiquity, Plato considered artistic creativity as a result of god-given madness. When it comes to popular figures in the arts and sciences, however, it is important to note that the illness is not restricted to them.

Lord Byron and Beethoven are said to be manic-depressive, Dostoyevsky had epilepsy. In terms of madness and its impact on creativity and genius, we can merely speculate. In fact, some critics of psychiatry feel that mental illness has been given a pathological status as an 'illness' and that we tend to reverse-label these figures and diagnose them with modern labels.

What I meant earlier when I said that illness is not restricted to genius was to clarify a very important point, that majority of people that suffer from mental illnesses are not creative geniuses, or even accomplished in the traditional sense. Since mental illness has a strong genetic component, it is not surprising that Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russel's son were diagnosed with schizohprenia and James Joyce's daughter too was diagnosed with it.

Your hunch is correct though, take this from the Wikipedia page on the relation between mental illness and creativity.

A study looking at 300,000 persons with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or unipolar depression, and their relatives, found overrepresentation in creative professions for those with bipolar disorder as well as for undiagnosed siblings of those with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. There was no overall overrepresentation, but overrepresentation for artistic occupations, among those diagnosed with schizophrenia. There was no association for those with unipolar depression or their relatives.

Another study involving more than one million people, conducted by Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute, reported a number of correlations between creative occupations and mental illnesses. Writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, and were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves. Dancers and photographers were also more likely to have bipolar disorder.

However, let me deal with the some of the evidence that cognitive science provides us. This evidence may come from different sources but they are attempts at determining a connection between the two phenomenon, and by no means is there any rock-solid connection that has been documented by any study. Furthermore, I must warn you that some experiments are 'reductive' in the sense that they will ascribe the entire connection between mental illness and genius to a single factor, whereas many factors (or a very complex system) is actually the reason behind the apparent correlation. Here are some theories:

Dopermergic Theory

Since medical treatments that block dopamine receptors have show to reduce symptoms of schizophrenia, there is a consensus in the psychiatric community that schizophrenia is caused by an overactive dopamine system. The particular receptor I will discuss is the D2 receptor. For instance, a lower thalamic (from the Thalamus brain region) D2 binding potential is observed in those patients who do not take antipsychotic medications. Furthermore, a significantly larger number of D2 receptors are present in the striatum of schizophrenic patients.

As I am trying to answer your question, I will try avoiding getting trapped within semantic arguments about the definition of genius. Lets assume that they are individuals with great creative abilities and divergent thinking patterns that allow them to come up with novel solutions to difficult problems, or create original pieces of art. The study quoted found a negative correlation between divergent thinking and D2 receptor binding potential not in the thalamus, but present in the striatum. Similar to patients with schizophrenia, creative people had lower D2 receptor density in their thalamus. This phenomenon may relate to creativity because it might be because when compared to normal subjects, schizophrenics 'block out' less information from the external world. These abnormal thoughts might occasionally present themselves as novel ideas.

Brain Hemispheric Ambidexterity

Like mentioned below, divergent thinking can be associated with creativity. Studies have shown that bilateral activation of the prefrontal cortex is observed in people with divergent thinking patterns, and similar results were found for schizophrenic patients - however, they had greater activation in their right prefrontal cortex, showing that they can access both hemispheres. Simultaneous access to both hemispheres allows for greater ability to create associations. [Enter Source]. This greater ability to associate ideas may result in many of the multidisciplinary or revolutionary ideas advocated by exceptional figures.

Overrepresentation of Siblings in Creative Professions

Siblings of schizophrenic patients were found in a study to be overrepresented in creative processions. It has been hypothesized that these siblings have higher levels of schizotypal personality traits when compared to normal subjects. It is important to note the difference between Schizotypy and Schizophrenia, the second is a clinical case, the first is a personality category. It is highly probable, however, that both have a similar genetic basis. Schizotypal traits include weak mental boundaries between the self and external world, strange experiences, impulsive nonconformity and magical beliefs. As mentioned in this excerpt from this blog piece from Scientific American, this has implications for creativity:

This has important implications for creativity. Mark Batey and Adrian Furnham found that the unusual experiences and impulsive nonconformity dimensions of schizotypy, but not the cognitive disorganization dimension, were significantly related to self-ratings of creativity, a creative personality (measured by a checklist of adjectives such as “confident,” “individualistic,” “insightful,” “wide interests,” “original,” “reflective,” “resourceful,” “unconventional,” and “sexy”), and everyday creative achievement among thirty-four activities (“written a short story,” “produced your own website,” “composed a piece of music,” and so forth).

However, it explores both sides of the camps and makes some important observations that diminish the validity of the hypothesis:

In 2014, [Albert] Rothernberg [Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard] published a book, “Flight of Wonder: an investigation of scientific creativity”, in which he interviewed 45 science Nobel laureates about their creative strategies. He found no evidence of mental illness in any of them. He suspects that studies which find links between creativity and mental illness might be picking up on something rather different.

“The problem is that the criteria for being creative is never anything very creative. Belonging to an artistic society, or working in art or literature, does not prove a person is creative. But the fact is that many people who have mental illness do try to work in jobs that have to do with art and literature, not because they are good at it, but because they’re attracted to it. And that can skew the data,” he said. “Nearly all mental hospitals use art therapy, and so when patients come out, many are attracted to artistic positions and artistic pursuits.”

[I will edit this answer continuously over the next few hours to elaborate, since it is a tough question to answer]

Important Note: Since the question you asked was very broad. I tried to focus on the particular mental condition you stated, schizophrenia. I have not discussed other conditions such as manic-depression, unipolar depression and so forth, and there is extensive literature on the connection between those conditions and genius.


Manzano, O. et al. “Thinking Outside a Less Intact Box: Thalamic Dopamine D2 Receptor Densities Are Negatively Related To Psychometric Creativity in Healthy Individuals.” PLoS ONE, May 2010.

Batey, M. Furnham, A. (2009). The relationship between creativity, schizotypy and intelligence. Individual Differences Research, 7, p.272-284.

Kyaga, S.; Lichtenstein, P.; Boman, M.; Hultman, C.; Långström, N.; Landén, M. (2011). "Creativity and mental disorder: Family study of 300 000 people with severe mental disorder". The British Journal of Psychiatry 199 (5): 373–379. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.110.085316. PMID 21653945

Takahiro Nemotoa,Ryoko Yamazawaa, Hiroyuki Kobayashia, Nobuharu Fujitaa, Bun Chinoa, Chiyo Fujiid, Haruo Kashimaa, Yuri Rassovskye, Michael F. Greenc and Masafumi Mizunof (November 2009). "Cognitive training for divergent thinking in schizophrenia: A pilot study". Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry 33 (8): 1533–1536. doi:10.1016/j.pnpbp.2009.08.015. PMID 19733608.

Kay Redfield Jamison (1996). Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. Free Press. ISBN 978-0-684-83183-1.

Creativity in Offspring of Schizophrenic and Control Parents: An Adoption Study Dennis K. Kinney , Ruth Richards , Patricia A. Lowing , Deborah LeBlanc , Morris E. Zimbalist , Patricia Harlan Creativity Research Journal Vol. 13, Iss. 1, 2001

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At the beginning, if one's intellect was above the " G1" level, and one believed that the world was not flat but that the world was round, then clearly this person is INSANE according to the masses, because he has surpassed the fine line at the Genius level. However, for some bizarre reason he is considered to be sane at a later period, after his claims were proven to be correct.

Later on, several men who are INSANE according to the masses, men who's intellect was above the " G2" level, claimed that man could create machines that can move at speeds that surpass the speed of sound. However, for some bizarre reason they were considered to be sane at a later period, after this claim became true.

Later on, several men who are INSANE according to the masses, men who's intellect was above the " G3" level, claimed that man could create machines that could put man on the moon. However, for some bizarre reason they were considered to be sane at a later period, after this claim became true.

What is today's " G4" level ?
Are those above the current definition of a GENIUS to be classified as being INSANE?

The point being made here, is that currently there is no difference being noticed between those whom are well advanced beyond the norm, and those whom are detached from reality.

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Welcome to Cognitive Sciences and Stack Exchange in general Sean! I deleted your comment since it did not have anything to do with this question. Please consult the help section to get a better understanding of how this Q&A site works. We only accept posts/comments which are on-topic. A side-comment linking to your YouTube account is totally irrelevant which I considered self-promotion, hence it got removed. –  Steven Jeuris Feb 6 at 15:13
Yes I understand. When one is confined to the boundaries of specific topics, it becomes absolutely impossible to answer the question in the absolute measure, since "absolute" sits beyond the reach of "confinement". However, this banning of absolute understanding and absolute knowing is still ongoing at this time and thus we are currently stuck with it. –  Sean Feb 6 at 15:19

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