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Odd Behavior And Creativity May Go Hand-in-hand

September 7, 2005
Vanderbilt University
A quirky or socially awkward approach to life might be the key to becoming a great artist, composer or inventor. New research in individuals with schizotypal personalities--people characterized by odd behavior and language but who are not psychotic or schizophrenic--offers the first neurological evidence that these individuals are more creative than normal or fully schizophrenic people, and rely more heavily on the right sides of their brains than the general population to access their creativity.

These images summarize the results of near infrared spectroscopy scans of schizotypes, schizophrenics and normal controls during divergent thinking tasks. Image (a) illustrates where the probe holder was placed for the brain scan. Image (b) shows the increase in oxyhemoglobin, which corresponds to an increase in brain activity, that occurred in both the right and left hemispheres of all three groups. Image (c) shows the increase in oxyhemoglobin in the right hemisphere of schizotypes compared to normal controls, while image (d) illustrates the much greater activation in schizotypes over schizophrenics. Image (e), which compares the different reaction of schizophrenics and normal controls, shows no difference between the two groups.
Credit: Courtesy of Park Lab

Often viewed as a hindrance, having a quirky or sociallyawkward approach to lifemay be the key to becoming a great artist,composer or inventor.

New research on individuals withschizotypal personalities – people characterized by odd behavior andlanguage but who are not psychotic or schizophrenic – offers the firstneurological evidence that they are more creative than either normal orfully schizophrenic individuals, and rely more heavily on the rightsides of their brains than the general population to access theircreativity.

The work by Vanderbilt psychologists Brad Folley andSohee Park was published online last week by the journal SchizophreniaResearch.

Psychologists believe that a number of famous creativeluminaries, including Vincent Van Gogh, Albert Einstein, EmilyDickinson and Isaac Newton, had schizotypal personalities.

"Theidea that schizotypes have enhanced creativity has been out there for along time but no one has investigated the behavioral manifestations andtheir neural correlates experimentally," Folley says. "Our paper isunique because we investigated the creative process experimentally andwe also looked at the blood flow in the brain while research subjectswere undergoing creative tasks."

Folley and Park conducted twoexperiments to compare the creative thinking processes of schizotypes,schizophrenics and normal control subjects. In the first experiment,the researchers showed research subjects a variety of household objectsand asked them to make up new functions for them. The results showedthat the schizotypes were better able to creatively suggest new usesfor the objects, while the schizophrenics and average subjectsperformed similarly to one another.

"Thought processes forindividuals with schizophrenia are often very disorganized, almost tothe point where they can’t really be creative because they cannot getall of their thoughts coherent enough to do that," Folley observes."Schizotypes, on the other hand, are free from the severe, debilitatingsymptoms surrounding schizophrenia and also have an enhanced creativeability."

In the second experiment, the three groups again wereasked to identify new uses for everyday objects as well as to perform abasic control task while the activity in their prefrontal lobes wasmonitored using a brain scanning techniques called near-infraredoptical spectroscopy. The brain scans showed that all groups used bothbrain hemispheres for creative tasks, but that the activation of theright hemispheres of the schizotypes was dramatically greater than thatof the schizophrenic and average subjects, suggesting a positivebenefit of schizotypy.

"In the scientific community, the popularidea that creativity exists in the right side of the brain is thoughtto be ridiculous, because you need both hemispheres of your brain tomake novel associations and to perform other creative tasks," Folleysays. "We found that all three groups, schizotypes, schizophrenics andnormal controls, did use both hemispheres when performing creativetasks. But the brain scans of the schizotypes showed a hugely increasedactivation of the right hemisphere compared to the schizophrenics andthe normal controls."

The researchers believe that the resultsoffer support for the idea that schizotypes and other psychoses-pronepopulations draw on the left and right sides of their brainsdifferently than the average population, and that this bilateral use ofthe brain for a variety of tasks may be related to their enhancedcreativity.

In support of this theory, Folley points to researchby Swiss neuroscientist Peter Brugger who found that everydayassociations, such as recognizing the car key on your keychain, andverbal abilities are controlled by the left hemisphere while novelassociations, such as finding a new use for a object or navigating anew place, are controlled by the right hemisphere.

Bruggerhypothesized that schizotypes should make novel associations fasterbecause they are better at accessing both hemispheres – a predictionthat was verified in a subsequent study. His theory can also explainresearch which shows that a disproportional number of schizotypes andschizophrenics are neither right nor left hand dominant, but insteaduse both hands for a variety of tasks, suggesting that they recruitboth sides of their brains for a variety of tasks more so than theaverage person.

"The lack of specialization for certain tasks inbrain hemispheres could be seen as a liability, but the increasedcommunication between the hemispheres actually could provide addedcreativity," Folley says.

Folley, who is in the process ofcompleting his dissertation at Vanderbilt, is currently pursuing aclinical internship and research at the University of California LosAngeles. Park is an associate professor of psychology and aninvestigator in the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on HumanDevelopment.

The work was supported by grants from the NationalInstitute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Child Healthand Human Development.

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