Professor of Neuroscience at the Universities of Oxford and Warwick
The full article appeared in the Guardian newspaper, UK, February 2008
“If we identify and eliminate the genes that cause mental disorders, do we risk destroying the rich creativity that often accompanies them”
Isaac Newton was able to work without a break for three days. Einstein took a job in a patent office because he was too disruptive to work in a university. HG Wells was so gawky and insecure at school that he had only one friend. Are these psychiatric disorders that should be treated or genius that should be cherished?”
In a new book, Genius Genes, Irish psychiatrist Michael Fitzgerald argues that special forms of creativity are associated with a variety of cognitive disorders. He particular talks about Asperger’s syndrome and explores well known people’s behaviour and traits including politicians. “The increasing power of genetic analysis is now invading the most private parts of humanity - not just the functions of our bodies and the origins of straightforward inherited diseases, but also complex characteristics that cannot be attributed to individual genes…..But none of these conditions has yet been linked to an individual genetic mutation. Some argue that they are not genetic diseases at all; others that different genetic mutations, or combinations of mutations, might lead to such conditions.” says Colin Blakemore.
The correlation between creativity and mental illness is a persistent theme in psychiatry, analysed by Kay Jamison, an eminent clinical psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, and herself a manic depressive, in her book Touched With Fire. The oddness of many great writers is well documented and a surprisingly high proportion of poets, in particular, had symptoms that indicate manic depression. If we do manage to identify genes linked to manic depression, autism and schizophrenia, and confirm that they are correlated with creativity, what could it mean?
The discussion and speculation around this subject raises an important general issue. “As both our knowledge of human genetics and our ability to modify genetic function advance, we shall have to face up to the question of what constitutes normality and what defines a disease.” The richness of humanity and the power of our culture are, in no small way, attributable to the diversity of our minds. Do we want a world in which the creativity linked to the oddness at the fringes of normality is medicated away?