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Connecting strength and vulnerability of the creative brain

July 25, 2014 at 6:25 PM EST
Why have so many creative minds suffered from mental illness? Nancy Andreasen, Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa, has devoted decades of study to the physical differences in the brains of writers and other highly accomplished individuals. Produced in partnership with The Atlantic magazine, Judy Woodruff visits Andreasen to explore her work.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Next: the third in our series of stories this week on the science of the brain.

Tonight, Judy Woodruff explores the connections between creativity and mental illness. It’s a subject that has intrigued researchers for quite a while, and Judy recently traveled to the Midwest to interview a leading scientist in the field.

Our story was produced in partnership with The Atlantic magazine, which features this topic as its cover story this month.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On any given day, you might find Dr. Nancy Andreasen, M.D., Ph.D, in the MRI lab at the University of Iowa Hospital Center.

DR. NANCY ANDREASEN, Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry, University of Iowa: The principle here is that this is what we call the control test.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s here where she has done groundbreaking neuroimaging research, especially on schizophrenia, linking it to physical differences in the brain itself. It’s something she’s been interested in since she received her degree in 1960s.

DR. NANCY ANDREASEN: I knew I was going to be interested in the brain ultimately, because I knew it was the organ that makes us human.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But she’s also always had a parallel interest in literature, which led to an unusual field of scientific inquiry: Why have so many great writers suffered from mental illness?

DR. NANCY ANDREASEN: I knew that, for instance, Bertrand Russell, great philosopher, had a family just loaded with schizophrenia. James Joyce had a daughter with schizophrenia, and Joyce himself was also kind of odd.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the 1960s and ’70s, she took advantage of the University’s nationally renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop to study writers who taught there, like Kurt Vonnegut and John Cheever.

She wanted to see if there were a higher-than-usual occurrence of mental illness among them or their family members. Her study concluded that a full 80 percent had a form of mood disturbance at some point, compared with 30 percent of a control group.

DR. NANCY ANDREASEN: That study came as a great surprise to me. I had this working idea that people would have family members with schizophrenia, and what I found instead was that these writers had really high rates of mood disorder, which would be manic depressive illness and just plain depression, that they had a high rate of mood disorder in their first-degree relatives, and that creativity ran in their families as well.

Noted example is Kurt Vonnegut, who himself, of course, was a writer. His father was a great architect. One son is a writer, and two daughters are — have — work in the arts as well. And a substantial number of them also have mental illness of various kinds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, Kurt Vonnegut’s son, Mark, now a pediatrician and writer living in Boston, has been very open about his own struggles with mental illness.

DR. MARK VONNEGUT: In short, like a lot of people, and like it happened to other people in my family, in my early 20s, I became convinced that I didn’t have to eat anymore or sleep anymore. I was hearing voices continuously. They had to put me in a psychiatric hospital.

I have had four terrible psychotic breaks. And there is nothing romantic about them. Life is discontinuous and horrible. And getting back on your feet is a lot of work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wanting to do something to ease the pain, Andreasen focused her research for the next two decades on neurobiology and neuroimaging. But she never lost her interest in creative genius. Does it run in families? What’s the connection between creativity and mental illness?

DR. NANCY ANDREASEN: One of the big questions is, should people who are creative have their psychiatric problems treated and does that diminish their creativity? That’s a hard question because the very things that make people creative make them vulnerable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the last decade, Nancy Andreasen has been conducting her second study of creative minds. She has been working with highly accomplished and recognized individuals, such as the filmmaker George Lucas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley, and mathematician William Thurston.

She invites them to visit her farm before heading to the university hospital the next morning for a session inside a claustrophobic neuromagnetic imaging scanner. Andreasen observes how answering different questions affects different parts of the brain.

DR. NANCY ANDREASEN: As I thought about it, what I realized was that people who are creative are better at making connections. What I have to do is figure out how to tap into the association cortex. And then that actually made it very easy, because you just give tasks where people make associations.

MAN: It will be starting in just a few seconds.

DR. NANCY ANDREASEN: There are three tests. One is word association, one is picture association, and one is a pattern-detection study. What characterizes the brains of highly creative people that is different from the brains of people who are equally educated and generally quite successful, but just not highly creative?

JUDY WOODRUFF: In these scans, you can literally see the difference between highly creative people and equally educated, intelligent control subjects like this one.

DR. NANCY ANDREASEN: We’re seeing which brain regions are most active during a specific task.

What we’re seeing is areas that are relatively more increased during the experimental task, in comparison with a control task. And, in this case, the experimental task is detecting a pattern that is really a very challenging puzzle that they are solving. And the areas of the brain that they use more actively during the pattern detection are shown in red or yellow. And the areas that are more active during the comparison task are shown in blue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Many of Andreasen’s conclusions so far about creative genius stem also from the extensive interviews she’s done. She stresses this is preliminary, but says there are some traits that many of her subjects share.

They teach themselves from an early age, have many deep interests, rather than just one. And they are very persistent, even in the face of rejection.

DR. NANCY ANDREASEN: One interesting thing that’s emerged is that so many of these highly creative people are autodidacts. They are people who teach themselves. That makes them almost misfits in the educational system that they get put into. It would be nice if educators were aware of the existence of autodidacts and the need to give them slightly different education experiences, to nurture them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andreasen believes her research into creative minds has already helped reduce the negative image associated with mental illness.

Mark Vonnegut also champions research likes hers, if that’s what it takes to achieve public awareness and understanding.

DR. MARK VONNEGUT: I think, to the degree it helps get rid of the stigma of mental illness and gets people on board, you know, wrestling this beast together, that it’s a good thing.

So, by all means, let’s not have any more homeless vets, because there might be a Kurt Vonnegut in there. Let’s take care of them. Let’s take care of our people. There might be a Hemingway. There might be a van Gogh. There might — let’s take care of each other.

DR. NANCY ANDREASEN: You know, some of the stories are just crushing. They’re just crushing.

But the remarkable thing is that these are hugely successful people. So, you balance the crushing personal histories against the record of extraordinary achievement, and it’s inspiring.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andreasen says it will take several years to complete the research project on the creative mind, but the results at the midway point were so exciting, she wanted to make them public now.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You can find a link to Nancy Andreasen’s cover story for “The Atlantic” on our Web site.