Born that way – what makes a creative genius?
As research continues to reveal intrinsic links between creativity and genetics, the issue of nature versus nurture rears its head once more.
The mind of the tortured genius has long been one shrouded in mystery. From the dramatics of Shakespeare to the reclusiveness of Salinger, creativity is thought by many as by definition, undefinable. In 2010, ground-breaking research turned that theory on its head and lifted the veil on the creative mind. Scientists in the department of Neurology and Neuroscience at Cornell University discovered a key difference in the brains of those we classify as creative – musicians, writers, artists – and those that we do not. It was discovered that the brains of creatives had a distinctively smaller corpus callosum – the bundle of nerves that connects the left and right side of the brain together. In being smaller, this allows each side to think more independently and autonomously, key characteristics of the creative mind.
The University of Cornell’s research compounds the idea that the creative spark comes from the ability to generate fresh concepts from scratch. However, a recent investigation by Szabolcs Keri and his team at the University of Psychiatry and Addictions in Budapest adds a different slant. Kerri’s research suggests that the true sum of creativity lies not in our ability to materialise new ideas out of thin air, but in a gene within our makeup that affects how ideas within the brain connect and correspond with each other.
This casts an interesting light on the right of passage of the tortured creative. If some people are born with this gene and some aren’t, the likelihood that you will enter the illusive world of the creative is pretty much decided for you before birth. Keri’s research concluded that creative individuals possessed duplicate DNA strands containing a gene that affects the processing of serotonin, an essential neurotransmitter. It is high serotonin levels that accelerate connectivity in the cingulate cortex, an important place for awareness and thought in the brain. ‘Creativity is related to the connectivity of large-scale brain networks’, Keri explains; ‘How brain areas talk to each other is critical for originality and fluency’.
This discovery stokes the fire of an age old debate. Are our personalities pre-defined by our genetic makeup, or are our surroundings essentially what make us who we are? Artists would perhaps argue that their creativity has been forged from the pain they experience, something that can’t be passed in your genes. Indeed, Keri’s research explains that one of the key triggers of creativity is trauma. ‘We found that many creative people had experienced trauma in their lives. Trauma affects that expression of genes which have an impact on brain structure’.
So, is nature or nurture the biggest driver of creativity? Keri’s revelation of the effect trauma has on genetics is one of the most interesting of his investigation. Perhaps the trigger of trauma is what separates the happy creatives from the tragic ones. The creative mind will keep us guessing, that we can know for sure.