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Do Genius and Madness Go Hand-in-Hand?

Sylvia Plath put her head in the oven and Vincent van Gogh cut off his own ear. History is full of examples of genius artists who behaved peculiarly. Those who are gifted with genius often face the social stigma of being eccentric or absent minded. According to new research from the University of Semmelweis, Hungary, genius and madness often go hand-in-hand. Lead scientist Szabolcs Keri reports that, “Molecular factors that are loosely associated with severe mental disorders but are present in many healthy people may have an advantage enabling us to think more creatively.”

The Gene of Madness

Apparently a gene known as “Neuregulin 1” plays a vital role in brain development. When the structure of molecules related to this gene become changed in a particular way (a process called mutation), mental illness takes place. These researchers have found that this modified gene is linked to psychosis, depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. According to Keri, this gene plays a role in a variety of brain processes, including the development and strengthening of communication between neurons. What’s more, Hungarian scientists have discovered the presence of a modified form of this gene in creative people. It is said that around fifty percent of healthy Europeans have one copy of this mutation while about 15 percent possess two copies.

The Research Study

A group of volunteers were recruited for the purpose of studying creativity. These 200 volunteers considered themselves to be very accomplished and creative. They were given a questionnaire with unusual questions to answer. The originality and flexibility in the answers decided the subject’s creativity. Further evaluation was done by having the participants list their lifetime creative achievements. To evaluate for the presence of the gene Neuregulin 1, blood samples were taken. It was found that volunteers with modified genes of Neuregulin 1 scored the highest on the creativity assessment and had more lifetime creative achievements. Lower scores were found in the volunteers who did not possess the modified gene. This study clearly established a link between genius and madness.

Two Copies Twice as Nice

Keri and associates found that people with two copies of the Neuregulin 1 mutation – around 12 percent of the study participants – tended to score considerably higher on these measures of creativity when compared to other volunteers with one or no copy of the mutation. Those who possessed one copy were also found to be more creative than those without the mutation. Keri believes that this explains the differences in creativity among the subjects studied.

Keri’s Theory

One theory proposed by Keri is that the mutation dampens a brain region that regulates mood and behavior, the prefrontal cortex. This change is thought to unleash creative potential in some people and psychotic delusions in others. The volunteers of the study were smarter than average which led Keri to theorize that intelligence is one factor that determines whether the Neuregulin 1 mutation boosts creativity or contributes to madness. Many experts believe that lower intelligence leads to more mental illness where opponents argue that there is a fine line between genius and madness.

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