Saturday, June 12, 2010

Schizotypal: Deep into Creativity, Just Shy of Madness

In a March blog post, Madness and Creativity, I reported on how “latent inhibition” appears tied in to both psychosis and creativity. The piece drew heavily from a post on Psychiatry Today’s Beautiful Minds blog by Scott Barry Kaufman. As I reported:

What we seem to be looking at is that fine edge where productive novel thinking ventures close to the precipice of pathologically delusional thinking.

In his piece, Dr Kaufman talked about "latent inhibition" (LI), the brain's ability to unconsciously filter out information. High latent inhibition is conducive to rational thought. Low latent inhibition is associated with psychosis and schizophrenia.

But Dr Kaufman noted:

Recently researchers have wondered whether a reduced latent inhibition can actually be beneficial for creativity. After all, decreased LI may make an individual more likely to see connections that others may not notice.

In an ideal situation, a rational brain (the seat of executive function) processing novel information can produce astonishing insights that can pass for genius, creativity, or intuition. Dr Kaufman cited both his own research and the research of others in support of the proposition that those with a higher faith in their own intuition tested “high” for “low” LI.

People with schizophrenia, unfortunately, do not fare well with executive function. They get overwhelmed. Their low LI translates into psychosis. Sylvia Nasar, in her book “A Beautiful Mind,” recounts a colleague asking John Nash in 1959 how he could believe that extraterrestrials were sending him messages.

"Because," Nash replied, "the ideas that I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously."

In two blog pieces (on Nash and on Darwin) I speculated that Dr Nash may have been dealing with a form of “schizophrenia lite” (either under-the-radar “prodromal” symptoms or “schizotypy”) that allowed him to produce brilliant insights before the full force of the illness descended and robbed him of a quarter century of his life. What originally got me started on this line of thinking was a lecture I heard by Nancy Andreasen, who noted, among other things, that Einstein had a son who had schizophrenia and that he himself was an eccentric with “schizotypal” tendencies.

In his latest piece, Dr Kaufman dials in the “schizophrenia lite” connection. Schizotypy, he says, “is a watered-down version of schizophrenia” with a constellation of personality traits “that are evident in some degree in everyone.” He cites a recent study by Nelson and Rawlings in Schizophrenia Bulletin that suggests schizotypy “may be positively associated with the experience of creative flow.”

Dr Kaufman defines “flow as “the mental state of being completely present and fully immersed in a task.”

In addition: “When in flow, the creator and the universe become one, outside distractions recede from consciousness, and one's mind is fully open and attuned to the act of creating.”

As Susan Perry in “Writing in Flow” explains: “Looseness and the ability to cross mental boundaries are aspects of both schizophrenic thinking and creative thinking."

Dr Kaufman notes that this is an exciting time for research on the linkages between mental illness and creativity. The Nelson and Rawlings' study, he says, suggests that positive schizotypy, latent inhibition, and flow are intimately related, though a lot more research needs to be done.

Bring it on ...


Willa Goodfellow said...

Andreason got started on this "looseness of associations" by interviewing people in the Iowa Writer's Workshop. She expected that the writers would not have mental illness, but would have family members with schizophrenia. The second was confirmed. But she found that 80% of the writers had some kind of mental illness. Mood disorders led the list, but they were across the board.

Right now she is doing brain scans of 33 "creative" people from a number of fields, including science. George Lucas is one who is publicly identified.

She thinks it has to do with the basal ganglia

John McManamy said...

Hey, Willa. I heard Dr Andreasen talk about the study etc at the 2007 APA. She mentioned association cortices. What's with the basal ganglia?

Willa Goodfellow said...

Well, I didn't take notes and it was the local NAMI group, so no professionals, and no details. If I remember correctly (and more thoroughly since dashing off my first comment) she said that all the action is in the white matter, the neurons that connect the different lobes. And I think the connections most important in creativity/mental illness are among the limbic system, the parietal lobe and the basal ganglia.

At this point, I know more about the hardware (the parts) than the software (how the hardware makes connections). I need to get into some kind of brain course!

John McManamy said...

Hey, Willa. I think we're on the same page, here. It's all about the connections, which has something to do with the association cortices. So my guess is - and I need to research this - we get a lot of the circuitry coming up from the basal ganglia (which I called dopamine central in one piece) and projecting into the mid and upper brain (with signaling going back the other way). We are all creative (otherwise we couldn't carry on a conversation), but really creative people seem to have an enhanced capacity to connect these disparate thoughts and emotions and sensory inputs from different areas of the brain to come up with Eureka. This would also dovetail with what Kaufman et al are saying about latent inhibition and the and the diminished capability of the brain to filter out irrelevant thoughts and emotions and sensory inputs (provided executive function remains strong enough to handle the overload).

This is a super fascinating area of research. For the first time, it appears were getting some real leads (rather than speculation) into where genius (creativity, intuition, etc) meets madness.

Imagine for a second if we had the means to keep creative people creative without them going mad. Or to return so-called mad people to functional creativity.

Food for thought ...

Willa Goodfellow said...

Continuum, connections, continuum, connections, continuum, connections. What does fog have to do with little cat feet? Some people have heard of it. Some people get it. Some people can come up with it. Some people can see the cat. Some people are terrified of the cat. It's about how many connections there are between different parts of the brain, and whether command central is in charge of the connections.

UnmotheredChild said...

schizotypy “may be positively associated with the experience of creative flow.”

Dr Kaufman defines “flow as “the mental state of being completely present and fully immersed in a task.”

Since when is imagination a mental illness? Not everyone who has a big internal world is mentally ill. Or schizophrenic.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Unmothered Child. I appreciate your question, so to clear up any possible misunderstandings:

1. Imagination is not a mental illness.
2. But there are some interesting relationships between creativity, intuition, etc and mental illness. Very interesting research is being done - nothing definitive has been found, we need to learn more.
3. A fair number of my blog pieces have been devoted to this apparent connection. Each piece only tells a little piece of the story, which in turn is only a little piece of what we need to know.
4. Psychiatry has an unfortunate tendency to pathologize behavior it judges as not fitting the norm. Creative-intuitive types are often viewed with suspicion by psychiatry. So I think I'm on your side.
5. By the same token, we don't want to lose control.

This is an on=going conversation here at Knowledge is Necessity, so I welcome you joining us.

SeeJayEh said...

I am not a psych professional. However observation and experience appear to indicate that the 'pure reasoning' capacity of the human mind/body/spirit can, in the extremely creative, act as a 'brake' that can stop such a person from skidding off the cliff of input perception and interpretation. Connections can solidify in organic patterns, and imagination can blossom with wildness. 'Earth logic', though harsh and limiting, reins in the thought machine and allows the self to stay whole, and act on insight. Hopefully that makes some sense. Thoughts?

Erika Marie said...

UnMothered Child,

My understanding is that schizotypy is not necessarily bad in and of itself, though it does imply a greater than normal vulnerability to psychosis, and particularly schizophrenia. I was looking at its 4 traits as listed on Wiki:

1.Unusual experiences: The disposition to have unusual perceptual and other cognitive experiences, such as hallucinations, magical or superstitious belief and interpretation of events (see also delusions).
2.Cognitive disorganization: A tendency for thoughts to become derailed, disorganised or tangential (see also formal thought disorder).
3.Introverted anhedonia: A tendency to introverted, emotionally flat and asocial behaviour, associated with a deficiency in the ability to feel pleasure from social and physical stimulation.
4.Impulsive nonconformity: The disposition to unstable mood and behaviour particularly with regard to rules and social conventions.

A high IQ person with good executive function would probably be able to turn those traits around into something positive; if well-controlled by the person, the unusual experiences can allow for creativity and the cognitive disorganization can allow for novel thinking. The other 2 seem to have less positive potential, but I think more productive schizotypal individuals tend to have lower introverted anhedonia, based on what I've read elsewhere.

Of course, considering the blog, one area of interest is the impulsive noncomformity, a tendency "to unstable mood and behavior." That seems to have some overlap with bipolar, does it not?

Marcus said...

I don't think this thread may be monitored anymore, however, I shall add my two cents anyway.

I am presently actively pursuing Doctoral research into reasoning processes in respect to the Psychosis Continuum (Schizotypy, to Schizophrenia).

What appears apparent so far, is when controlling for intelligence and cognitive capacity (e.g. Working Memory Span) is that people with high degrees of positive schizotypy (unusual beliefs, cognitive-perceptual distortions) not only exhibit a preference for intuitive over deliberative reasoning (self-reportedly) but also experimentally (as assessed by various tasks that were designed to ascertain intuitive versus deliberative reasoning). The tasks have been based on 'formal' reasoning, so were shifting our attention into more 'social' and behavioural decision-making task, using real life scenarios.

We have reason to believe that intuitive reasoning plays a significant role in the maintenance of the more positive symptoms of psychosis. This does help explain why certain people Jump to Conclusions and exhibit various cognitive biases. Such erroneous processing has been implemented in the formation of clinical delusions and hallucinations.

A model of Human Reasoning applied to the continuum of Psychosis is an avenue I highly recommend exploring.


Marcus L