Decoding Creativity – It’s In the Genes!

What do Beethoven and the violinist who plays in the subway for a few dollars of tips share? What’s common between Vincent Van Gogh and the spraycan-wielding graffiti artists who paint the walls of your city with their bold artwork? Creativity? Yes, but the similarities go deeper. According to scientists and psychologists, these artists share a set or two of similar “creativity” genes.

Creative people are wired differently to their non-creative brethren. The difference is not only in the presence or absence of certain genes but also in the structural characteristics of their brains.

For decades, scientists have been tinkering with the idea that genes may have a role to play in developing creative abilities in individuals. The association described above was suggested in a study of 300,000 people with mental illnesses carried out by scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. According to the results of this study, people suffering from severe neuropsychiatric illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia tend to display enhanced creativity compared to mentally healthy individuals. A significant percentage of the mentally ill subjects in this study were engaged in creative and artistic professions. The study discovered that their first-degree healthy relatives were also more likely to be engaged in creative occupations. This suggests that although mental illness may not be hereditary, creative genes may run in families.

These findings add more fuel to the “nature versus nurture” debate, but the scientists do not negate the role of nurturing in developing creativity in individuals. They just claim some people are born more creatively-endowed than others.

The above-mentioned study did not explain what causes the co-occurrence of psychopathology and creativity. But the study definitely suggested a link between genes and creativity, an idea that provided food for thought to other scientists.

Recently, a study was carried out on members from five multigenerational families and 172 unrelated individuals with proven musical aptitude and creativity. The subjects in the study were selected after testing them for their ability to compose, improvise and arrange music as well as judge pitch and timing. This study suggests a link between several genes and musical ability and creativity. The study discovered that individuals with musical abilities had genomic variants or copy number variations (CNVs) — either they did not have some genes or had duplicate copies.

Incidentally, CNVs have been linked to the cognitive performance of individuals suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders. The findings from another study indicate the role of CNVs in increasing the risks of a person developing bipolar affective disorder or schizophrenia. Does this surprise you? After all, the belief that geniuses are mad is quite popular.

Research data published in 2014 also confirm that human genes definitely have a hand in developing a person’s musical abilities. According to the findings of this study, CNVs influence an individual’s ability to produce music (sing or take part in creative musical activities like arranging, composing, and improvising music), form music memories, and perceive music (identify or produce pitches without the aid of an external reference, spot wrong notes, and detect changes in rhythm and melodies). The study also hints at the heritability of musical ability, which means that music genes tend to run through families.

Several other scientific studies indicate the positive association between the structure of the brain, the goings-on in there, and creative genius in individuals.

A study by scientists at the Cornell University found that creative individuals like artists, musicians, and writers tend to have a peculiarity in the structure of their brains — they have a smaller mass of corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is a cluster of nerve fibers that connect the two hemispheres of the brain.

But scientists and psychologists are not surprised by these findings, and they have an explanation.

Creative individuals are characterized by their ability to think out-of-the-box. It is essentially divergent thinking that lets them explore many different solutions and connect the dots to come up with innovative and creative ideas. A smaller corpus callosum decreases the connectivity between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Left to itself, each hemisphere gets the chance to specialize, so ideas can develop more freely and fully. The scientists call this process “incubation of ideas.”

After poking and prodding around the brain to find answers, scientists have discovered more brain features linked to creative ability. The brains of creative individuals tend to show increased gray matter especially in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) region, an area that is associated with awareness. More gray matter is linked to increased intelligence.

The study also found evidence that creative individuals tend to have elevated serotonin levels in their brains due to their particular genetic make-up. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that increases connectivity between cells.

Increased connectivity between the cells in the PCC leads to greater and more acute awareness of information. This means the person can process information untainted by memory and emotions. Increased connectivity between different regions of the brain also enhances the ability to form novel associations, detect patterns, and comprehend symbols. How effectively different areas of the brain, each controlling different intelligences, thoughts, or emotions, can communicate with one another determines the mental flexibility, fluency, and originality of a person.

So creative ability is not just divergent thinking. It is also about being able to form new associations and quickly string together divergent ideas to come up with unique insights.

From the studies mentioned above, it seems creative geniuses are born, rather than made. But do all geniuses go on to become super-achievers? No. The very scientists who suggest creativity is genetic go on to assure you that geniuses too need luck and opportunities to express themselves. Geniuses have to also work hard, keep learning, and ensure they are at the right place at the right time. The creativity we admire certainly does not rest on the genes alone! Really talented individuals strive to improve with every song, every canvas, or every book they produce.


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Image via millann / Shutterstock.

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing (Scientific Biomedical Consulting Services).
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