Weird behavior, creativity linked
July 2, 2005
Courtesy the Carnegie Institution
and World Science staff
People called “weird” by their peers may have a leg up in life, at least in one respect
Researchers have found that a quirky or socially awkward approach to life, often considered a hindrance, may be the key to becoming a great artist, composer or inventor.
The researchers studied people with “schizotypal,” personalities—who act oddly, but aren’t mentally ill—and found they’re more creative than either normal or fully schizophrenic people. To access their creativity, these people rely heavily on the right sides of their brains.
The work by psychologists Brad Folley and Sohee Park of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., was published online last week by the journal Schizophrenia Research.
Psychologists believe a number of creative luminaries had schizotypal personalities, including Vincent Van
Gogh, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson and Isaac Newton.
“The idea that schizotypes have enhanced creativity has been out there for a long time,” but no one has studied how their brains work, Folley said. “We investigated the creative process experimentally and we also looked at the blood flow in the brain while research subjects were undergoing creative tasks.”
Folley and Park conducted two tests to compare the creative thinking processes of
schizotypes, schizophrenics and “normal” people.
In the first test, the researchers showed participants various household objects and asked them to make up new functions for them. Schizotypes were found to be most creative in suggesting new uses for the objects. Schizophrenics and average subjects performed similarly to one another.
Schizophrenia has also often been linked to creativity, but many schizophrenics have disorganized thoughts “almost to the point where they can’t really be creative because they cannot get all of their thoughts coherent enough to do that,” Folley said.
“Schizotypes, on the other hand, are free from the severe, debilitating symptoms surrounding schizophrenia and also have an enhanced creative ability.”
In the second test, the three groups again were asked to identify new uses for everyday objects as well as to perform a basic control task while their brain activity was monitored using a brain scanning technique called near-infrared optical spectroscopy.
The brain scans showed all groups used both sides of the brain for creative tasks, but that the activation of the right sides of the schizotypes was dramatically greater than that of the schizophrenic and average subjects.
“In the scientific community, the popular idea that creativity exists in the right side of the brain is thought to be ridiculous, because you need both hemispheres of your brain to make novel associations and to perform other creative tasks,” Folley said.
“We found that all three groups, schizotypes, schizophrenics and normal controls, did use both hemispheres when performing creative tasks. But the brain scans of the schizotypes showed a hugely increased activation of the right hemisphere compared to the schizophrenics and the normal controls.”
The researchers said that the results support the idea that schizotypes and other psychoses-prone populations draw on the left and right sides of their brains differently than the average population, and that this bilateral use of the brain for a variety of tasks may be related to enhanced creativity.
Folley points to research by Swiss neuroscientist Peter Brugger, who found that everyday associations, such as recognizing the car key on your
keychain, and verbal abilities are controlled by the left hemisphere while novel associations, such as finding a new use for a object or navigating a new place, are controlled by the right hemisphere.
Brugger hypothesized that schizotypes should make novel associations faster because they are better at accessing both hemispheres – a prediction verified in a subsequent study, Folley said. His theory, Folley added, can also explain research showing that a disproportional number of schizotypes and schizophrenics are neither right- nor left-handed, but instead use both hands for a variety of tasks, suggesting that they recruit both sides of their brains for an array of tasks more than the average person.
“The lack of specialization for certain tasks in brain hemispheres could be seen as a liability, but the increased communication between the hemispheres actually could provide added creativity,” Folley said.
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