Einstein’s ability to chase a light beam in “thought experiments” led to the equations of General Relativity. Mozart composed entire operas and symphonies in his head, creating all the parts for all the instruments. He was able to imagine the sounds in his head for masterpieces such as Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) – without hitting a single key or playing a single note.
How do we explain exceptional scientists and artists like Einstein and Mozart? Where does such genius come from? What conditions or personality traits seem to produce exceptionally creative people? Is the association between genius and madness really just a myth?
Perhaps not entirely. New research suggests that a genetic mutation linked to psychosis and schizophrenia influences creativity.
Szabolcs Kéri, a researcher at Semmelweis University in Budapest, Hungary, examined a gene involved in brain development called neuregulin 1, that previous studies have linked to a slightly increased risk of schizophrenia. A single DNA letter mutation that affects how much of the neuregulin 1 protein is made in the brain has been linked to psychosis, poor memory and sensitivity to criticism.
According to New Scientist, this finding could help to explain why mutations that increase a person's risk of developing mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar syndrome have been preserved -- even preferred -- during human evolution.
The research also supports psychologist Hans Jürgen Eysenck’s conception of genius, and helps explain why geniuses like Einstein and Mozart are so exceptional – they may have a rare combination of intelligence and “psychoticism,” states in which individuals exhibit some of the qualities commonly found among psychotics.
Intelligence –- often in the form of a high IQ of 150 or above –- is clearly a personality trait of geniuses. Eysenck’s concept of genius blends intelligence with just the right amount of psychoticism. The genius is able “to take frequent excursions from conventional ways of thinking about things, but not so much as to devolve into insanity,” explains computer scientist and neuroengineer Bruce Katz of Drexel University.
This also fits the observations of Szabolcs Kéri: “My clinical experience is that high-IQ people with psychosis have more intellectual capacity to deal with psychotic experiences. It's not enough to experience those feelings, you have to communicate them."
Eysenck’s concept of genius blends intelligence with just the right amount of psychoticism.
Jeremy Hall, the geneticist at the University of Edinburgh in the UK who uncovered the link between the neuregulin 1 mutation and psychosis, agrees that the neuregulin 1 gene's effects are also probably influenced by cognitive factors such as intelligence.
Albert Einstein's brain has often been a subject of much research and speculation, and it was removed within seven hours of his death. Purported irregularities in his brain tissue have been used to support various ideas about the correlation between neuroanatomy and mathematical intelligence.
For example, some studies suggest that the regions involved in speech and language are smaller, while the regions involved with numerical and spatial processing are larger for the mathematically gifted. Other studies have suggested an increased number of glial cells. More recent studies indicate that increased glia/neuron ratio in cortical areas of Einstein’s brain is a sign of an autism disorder rather than the evidence that more glial cells make a genius.
Einstein’s brain, and its link to creative genius, remain a mystery. Pure speculation: could Einstein’s creativity possibly be associated with the neuregulin 1 gene?
Around July of 1791, when Mozart’s work on The Magic Flute was virtually complete and rehearsals had already begun, Mozart received a visit from a tall, grave-looking stranger dressed completely in gray. The stranger presented an anonymous letter commissioning Mozart to compose a Requiem as quickly as possible at whatever price the composer wished to name.
This ghostly figure is identified with Antonio Salieri in the film Amedeus (although more recent evidence suggests that it wasn’t actually Salieri who commissioned the Requiem). In the movie we meet Salieri in an insane asylum –- apparently driven mad by Mozart’s genius. Although anecdotal, It may be telling that, in real life, Salieri referred to Mozart as bezumets (a madman).
Are psychosis and creativity the same thing? While the neuregulin 1 gene suggests an association between psychosis and creativity, Jeremy Hall remains skeptical, "There's always been this slightly romantic idea that madness and genius are the flipside to the same coin. How much is that true? Madness is often madness and doesn't have as much genetic association with intelligence."