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The Artist Tortured by Genes?

There's a fine line between creativity and madness, according to a paper appearing in Nature Neuroscience this week. Researchers from Amgen's DeCode Genetics and their colleagues report that high scores on polygenic risk assessment tests for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are also correlated with creativity.

DeCode's Kari Stefansson and his colleagues generated polygenic risk scores for both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which they then applied to a cohort of 86,292 Icelanders. While high scores on those tests correlated with disease incidence in Icelanders, they also were associated with creativity, as determined by membership in a national society for actors, dancers, musicians, visual artists, or writers.

"Often, when people are creating something new, they end up straddling between sanity and insanity," Stefansson tells the Guardian. "I think these results support the old concept of the mad genius. Creativity is a quality that has given us Mozart, Bach, Van Gogh. It's a quality that is very important for our society. But it comes at a risk to the individual, and 1 [percent] of the population pays the price for it."

Critics of the paper argue, though, that this effect only explains a small variation in people's creative tendencies. "If the distance between me, the least artistic person you are going to meet, and an actual artist is one mile, these variants appear to collectively explain 13 feet of the distance," Emory University's David Cutler says.

Further, Judith Schlesinger, a psychologist and author, tells the Verge that the researchers' choice to define creativity by occupation was convenient, though "scientifically hollow." It assumes, she adds, that there are no people employed as lawyers, for instance, who paint or play music in their spare time and that people who join creative societies are actually creative.

Still, Stefansson tells NPR that genes must be influencing creativity, though he admits they aren't the only thing.