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Creativity--nature or nurture?

Genius is the person who equally fascinates and frightens. The intelligence of eminent people and their creativity attracts, intrigues and encourages research. Creativity is a desideratum in contemporary society, an acknowledged value in a public and financial sense. High IQ people, prodigies, extraordinary performances and school results are all valued. Media promotes discoveries from various fields, and creativity is perceived as a most precious attribute of the human being. Twentieth century society values geniuses, it rewards and encourages their performance, while concurrently denouncing the psychopathology associated with creativity and imposing, through the rigid rules that govern certain academic systems, specific patterns in the development and practice of creativity.

The creative genius has even represented a central theme of some literary and artistic works, but systematic research on the significance of eminence started as late as the 19th century. The Romantics perceived creativity in connection with eminence, a tendency towards the absolute, opposed to conventions. An appeal to create was formulated by Goethe: "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!" Or, in Hugo's words: "There is nothing like a dream to create the future." For Schopenhauer, genius is a miserable misfit. Genius is also a central theme in Eminescu's The Evening Star, Blue Flower, One Wish Alone Have I, Poor Wretched Dionysus.

In 1869, Francis Galton expressed his concern with genius and eminence. In his view, the two dimensions are based on a hereditary quality of intelligence (Vigue 2013). Due to some innate features, people are capable of creativity, they are able to get superior results in their corresponding working fields. Gabon's theory of hereditary genius was heatedly debated upon, like in the controversial case of the language acquisition theory represented by Vygotsky--Chomsky Skinner (Innovation 2006), the integration-innateness-learning triad. Questions regarding creativity and eminence, as well as their connection with psychopathology, require answering. Are these attributes of the human being, are they innate or learned? Are they a genetic legacy or an effect of the development in a specific motivational environment?

Based on the biographical analysis of 301 subjects endowed with extraordinary abilities (Cox 1926), excelling in various domains, there have been established connections between several determinants of eminence and creativity. The socioeconomic status (i.e. members of a middle or high social class) is a characteristic of the majority of the participants in the study. The result confirmed Gabon's hypothesis (Gabon 1969), attributing eminence to the boys whose parents, on a male line, had a superior status, genetically transmitting their geniality and intelligence (Simonton 1976: 218-219). In a more rational explanation (Hunt; apud Simonton 1976: 218-219), creativity is determined by stimulating opportunities, rather than by innate eminence.

As for the intrinsic and extrinsic characteristics of creative genius, Cox's ambitious analysis (Cox 1926) investigated the relation between the intelligence level and the level of formal education. This analysis came complete with new dimensions such as the variability of the period of productivity, including creative versatility, duration and vocational choice, comparing creators and leaders (Simonton 1976), also performances and fields of expertise. (Simonton 2008)

Conceptual frame

The attempt to conceptualize and define creativity comes up against restrictions imposed by the difficulty in expressing a comprehensive or minimalist approach. It can be perceived as process, as feature, as materialization of thought, as characteristic of genius. It can be seen as a fundamental activity in processing information or as the ability to obtain new and useful products (Dietrich 2004: 10-11). Creativity is ultimately a fundamental and remarkable human capacity. (cf. McPherson&Limb 2013)

Concepts can significantly vary in precision and application. Certain concepts, such as "weight" for instance, are extremely vague, others, such as the notion of "gram," are exceedingly imprecise. Some concepts are applicable to a wide range of phenomena, as is the case of "chance," whereas others can only be applied to well-defined situations, such as the initial existence of a dimension. Thus, the concept of creativity becomes rather hard to delineate, as it can be accurately or loosely defined. The definition can either be applied to diverse phenomena or restricted to only one or two. It all depends on the expansive or restrictive use of the term (cf. Simonton 2009). The wide range of uses includes, historically speaking, the Roman and humanist genius, with a long history, also the notion of scientific creativity, with a shorter history.

In a quadruple model of creativity (Taylor 1972; Taylor&Barron 1963), productive creativity implies the presence of loose control over free game, over creative operations, charged with a certain ludic tension; expressive creativity is a fundamental form of creativity in action, being expressed through total involvement in a certain activity, originality, sensitivity, complex message and commitment to the utmost available creative techniques and abilities; inventive creativity is the highest and most flexible form in seizing new significations, requiring flexibility in combining ideas, in perceiving subtle relations; emergent creativity is profound and complex, it obtains distinct products and is capable of transforming life in its social, scientific, artistic, technological aspects.

Creativity--innate or acquired?

Given recent research (Andreasen 2005; Bristol et al 2013; Dietrich 2004; Gilbert 2001), the dichotomous approach innate versus acquired creativity seems to be reductive and simplistic. The impact factors on manifesting creativity are diverse and therefore an analysis concerning the relation between creativity and genius is imperative.

Starting from the theory of hereditary genius and the analysis of his family background, one could at least try to grasp the manner of acquiring creativity in natural sciences and the function of genetic transmission in constructing genius (Rothenberg 2005). Take Galton's theory which, predominantly based on correlations, proposes a notable design. Rothenberg's, on the other hand, focuses on establishing a connection between the exceptional creative abilities of 435 Nobel Prize laureates and the context of family factors. A previous study (Rothenberg & Wyshak 2004) had examined this connection for the literary field.

In order to test the theory of innate eminence (Rothenberg 2005), the research design was based on multiple studies: initially a correlational study, meant to evaluate the connection between the occupations of the laureates and those of their parents--seizing as many variables as possible by comparing the group of laureates with the control group consisting of people with very high IQs and remarkable results in a certain field of activity, yet never laureates of a Nobel Prize, and their respective family background. In comparing the groups, geographic origin and temporal axis were taken into consideration. The main variable at issue was the parents' occupations, both the mother's and the father's. The correlation of the occupation with both parents was performed for both categories. The results of this correlation showed occupation to be irrelevant, with further specifications concerning the mother's occupation, as only a third of them were other than housewives, given the social realities of that specific period, namely between 1901 and 2003. One tiny little detail, though, was not in order. The group of laureates included 427 men and 8 women, whereas the control group was made of 445 men and 109 women. That there was no comparison to consider on this dimension between the two groups is of no consequence, we are dealing with negatively biased results that do not reflect a historical and social reality.

The small percentage of women laureates is explained by the difficult access of women to scientific research, especially in early twentieth century. Although involved in scientific research, recognition was minimal. Cases like those of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Marie Sktodowska-Curie, Maud Menten, Dorothy Hodgkin and Irene Joliot-Curie were rather isolated. On the one hand maternal occupation was not going to be prevailing in science at the time, and on the other hand women were unable to take on a scientific model of family employment, and were not encouraged to do so. The small number of Nobel Prize female winners in science--eight in all--has historical explanations rather than illustrates lack of genius or creativity, and this is a variable that was not taken into account. Further evidence in support of negative biasing would be that, of the eight female Nobel Prize winners, two of them were mother and daughter Marie Skfodowska-Curie and Irene Joliot-Curie. Both of them received a Nobel Prize for chemistry: in 1911 the mother and in 1935 the daughter.

Even if there is no correlation between the parents' occupation and genius, there is certainly a connection between the field and the employment domain of the parents and excellence in a profession for which one could receive the Nobel Prize (Rothenberg 2005), with a rate of 83% between the two variables, particularly with the same occupational area as the parent of the same sex--which is justified especially if the social and historical hypothesis mentioned above is taken into account.

Intelligence is known not to be enough for creativity, but based on the above examples we can consider creativity as a genetic inheritance. Let us link the unfulfilled desires of parents to become researchers and the performance motivation in children later becoming Nobel Prize winners.

One could admit that the thesis of Gabon's hereditary genius through a direct transmission mechanism of eminence is wrong, and draw a design instead (Rothenberg 2005), based on three distinct correlational researches, further evidence of the inconsistency of connectionism between heredity and eminence, the more so as the period under review is an extended and complex one and the barriers connected to a national area are removed. But limitations are still extant, concerning the analysis of the correlation between the presence of extended family genius and the presence of genius in descendants--for example, grandparents-grandchildren. Inside this limit we can include the assertion that there is some correlation between Nobel Prize winners. It is thus known (cf. Simonton 2009) that there are family ties between nine of them: six father-son, one mother-daughter (mentioned above), one nephew-uncle and one grandchild-grandparent.

As long as one can provide evidence both in favor of hereditary and acquired character-joining one single postulate seems to be incorrect. Certainly there are families in which genius is something in the inside and certainly new geniuses emerge from families that have no outstanding creative skills. And things have even more nuances if one takes into account the analysis domain. Literature seems to be more sensitive to the genetic heritage of creativity, also to psychopathology--which means that the phenomenon of hereditary transmission of eminence and genius requires further study, genius still being a subject for future research.

The neural basis

The mysticism that surrounded creativity lost its reputation with the systematic study on creativity. Through research such as Gabon's retrospective longitudinal (1969), Terman's prospective longitudinal (1926), Cox's (1926) and Simonton's (2008) historiometric, Gardner's "casual" (2011), Guilford's psychometric (1950) and Eysenck's personological types (1995), valuable information has been collected about the context in which creativity is seen through insight, problem-solving, and skill acquisition. However, as already signaled (Dietrich 2004: 1011), creativity has hardly been studied in terms of neuroscience. Yet the possibilities currently provided by imaging techniques allow for thorough neurological research and open up assumptions about the creative process at the moment of its realization. Creativity, nonetheless, is still stuck in the stage of asserting assumptions, as the difficulty of accounting for the process of creativity lies precisely in the impossibility of functionally measuring the brain in the exact moment of the emergence of creativity.

There is research supporting the existence of a neural basis for eminent creativity (Andreasen 2005: 74-78), but the way in which this basis develops is uncertain. We could safely presume that creativity is stimulated during childhood and is related to creativity motivation and to the creativity emerging during the development. There is, to be sure, a neural basis for eminent creativity: "It is obvious that there is a neural basis for ordinary creativity. As human beings, all of us create a new language every time we speak, using the multiple nodes in our language circuits. We all make connections between various words and ideas using our association cortex. We can perform tasks that require focused episodic memory, such as recounting personal experiences. We all have brains that are self-organizing systems. We are all able to think in nonlinear dynamic ways. But are these the same properties that produce extraordinary creativity as well? Does the extraordinarily creative person simply have a mind/brain that differs only in the amount or extent of these properties? Or does that person think in a truly different way? And if different, how so?" (Andreasen 2005: 74)

The neurological structures responsible for the normal processing of information are the same structures used at the time of creation, i.e. the structures of the prefrontal cortex, the most evolved part of the brain (Dietrich 2004: 1011-1023). Creativity is consequently the factorial result of four types of mechanisms: two ways of thinking--the spontaneous or conscious neural processing and two types of information: emotional and cognitive.

The neurological investigation of creativity seems to be preferable to the theoretical models, but the difficulty arises in determining the methodology we use in order to assess spontaneous creativity. It is difficult to merge the scientific evaluation and the emergent creative process (McPherson & Limb 2013: 80). The difficulty lies in the impossibility of predicting the time at which a person creates something new. If jazz improvisation is the reference, we will see the need for a close cooperation between researcher and artist.

The numerous studies on the neural basis of creativity makes us look at this concept, recently assigned to geniuses, as a normal process. Modern methods of creativity investigation focused on investigations like the analysis of brain electrical signals, the measurement of oxygen levels, the analysis of brain structure, blood flow or metabolic concentrations. Investigative techniques include DTI, EEG, magnetic resonance imaging fMRI, MRS-magnetic resonance spectroscopy, PET, rCBF, sMRI. (Abraham 2013: 65; Badzakova-Trajkov et al 2011: 57; Beaty et al 2014: 66)

While the investigation methods on creativity and genius are on the upgrade and provide an answer as close to truth as possible, facilitating a scientific approach to creativity, there is still this question of how the creative process can be measured at the time of its production. It is easy to apply a test of creativity and imaging evaluation, but the question is how genius imaging evaluation, and sometimes its description, can be extended to other cognitive processes in the field of pathology.

The studies (Andreasen 2005: 80; Dietrich 2004: 75; Fink et al 2007: 23) indicate an activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal areas, especially the areas of the occipital, parietal and temporal central crack; they are precisely the neurological structures that are known to be responsible for the poor cognitive functioning in people with psychiatric disorders or mental malfunction.

It is well known that in the case of several geniuses, as the cognitive impairment is increasing productivity fades. Consider the creation of Louis Wain (cf. Ludwig 1995). He was named "the cat artist" because of the large number of cat representations in his artistic creation. Nevertheless, the way in which he ended up making their representation is an example of the dilemma outlining the link between creativity and madness. In his youth Wain was a "strange character, humorless and sickly child with a precocious mathematical faculty and interests in music, painting, writing and chemistry" (Ludwig 1995:158). During his youth he was visited upon by the first symptoms of his future mental disorders, hallucinations materialized in the fact that he was haunted day and night by "a vast globe with an endless surface" that he was trying to climb over and that he often saw thousands of images of incredible complexity. His artistic direction took shape at the age of twenty, when he decided to become an artist. However, his artistic creation was influenced by the events of his daily life, his wife's death certainly having the most negative impact. "Peter," the animated stray cat Wain represented time and again in order to please his dying wife underwent major transformations until it no longer resembled the original character at all.

Cats were there even when Wain was hospitalized for insanity. He became so fond of drawing cats that "he could do so with lightening speed or draw two different cat pictures at once, one with each hand" (Ludwig 1995: 158-159). Compulsion, paranoid obsession affected his way of representing cats. The new cats appeared fiendish and bizarre.

Although he continued to draw coherent images, his thinking continued to deteriorate. For example on the back of The Perfect Cat, painted about that time, his psychotic ramblings are there, in broad daylight, (cf. Ludwig 1995: 159)

The solitary one more real persian cat is the one that is now going to be the one that is the real living animal left alone until the call is given to it at night time this evening at the same time as the rabbit can be again put to the test. This can be done by giving the call directly the light is seen after the first sleep is over. The colour is the direct soft tone in the red chalk. The whole is the (?) even (?) tints.--Living its own lonely life this old can (sic) can now come to the newer existence. It is the perfect cat made the more perfect by the willingness given to it. The whole is the old time rabbit and this has now the greater life given to it to be. The deer too can now be the same in the same way.

In time, Wain became more violent, incapacitated and plagued by hallucinations, and finally he was diagnosed with insanity. At Bethlem Royal Hospital he continued to draw incessantly. The cats he drew had an elaborate patterning, rich in blue and green, placed in fantastic landscapes and complex geometrical patterns. As his delusional episodes increased in frequency, he became less coherent and often made mistakes in identifying people. (Ludwig 1995: 159)

But even though he became increasingly psychotic, Wain retained his artistic skills.

An equally relevant case is that of Holderlin. As in Wain's case, his mental decline is easily observable in his poetic creation. If what occurred between 1800-1805 came to be acknowledged as a creation of the highest level, after his hospitalization at Tubingen he had a decline. In 1805 he was already declared to be mentally inadequate, and one year later he was found insane and impossible to cure.

The string of personalities with psychopathological problems, but extremely creative, does not stop here. Hermann Hesse had a "special" creativity that was aroused by his inner conflicts, Jean-Paul Sartre used alcohol to modulate the effects of drugs such as caffeine; Antonin Artaud was addicted to drugs (opium) that were supposed to stimulate his creativity. In fact, Artaud is likely to have died by taking an overdose of chloral hydrate, a substance used to treat insomnia and anxiety, but also as a painkiller and anesthetic. His creative periods alternated with periods of insanity and social maladjustment. He was finally admitted to the psychiatric hospital in Rodez, under the treatment of Dr. Gaston Ferdiere. It is interesting to mention that the treatment for pathological conditions consisted of the controversial electroshock therapy, which still seems to be a correct treatment choice for this particular case because Artaud's literary theater creation had a flourishing period following the treatment.

The connection between psychopathology and genius is also noteworthy in Eminescu's case, the great Romanian poet. Already considered a genius during his lifetime, his creative periods fluctuated with periods of hospitalization in mental homes in Bucharest in Vienna.

Depression and creativity

The most prevalent psychiatric symptomatologies that are associated with creativity are likely to be depression and psychosis. In the case of depression, many of the artists reported feelings of loneliness in the immediate period of creation. Joseph Conrad was among those who were depressed after compleating a creative work. So were Shirley Jackson and John Cheever whose mood grew darker and he became suicidally depressed. In 1925, Van Wyck Brooks became extremely depressed after finishing his latest book. After writing Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy collapsed emotionally and spiritually. Dora Carrington was happiest while painting, but finishing the painting depressed her. William Dean Howells became extremely anxious and overwhelmed when writing. Antonin Artaud was afraid to be creative because this might drive him insane (Ludwig 1995: 172-173). Truman Capote began to drink after creative activities.

Ernest Hemingway also had periods marked by depression, related to excessive alcohol consumption. In her turn Virginia Woolf struggled a lifetime with symptoms of depression, melancholy being a recurrent state. In fact, this was the reason that led to her self-inflicted death despite the help received from her husband.

Such examples showing the relationship between depression and creativity in various artistic domains are numerous and reinforce the assumption that between psychopathology and creativity there is a direct link. However, the manner in which the two variables determine one another remains unknown.

The impact of the psychopathological traits on the creation ability is established through co-relational studies and retrospective analyses. Moreover, the possibilities of imagistic evaluation at a neurological level have determined studies over the way in which creativity occurs and manifests itself, although one cannot make hasty assumptions about how creative a person will be or what type of symptoms will come to light along with genius. We cannot safely say if one will ever get to manifest a certain pathology associated with genius. What has been noticed, however, is the high incidence of people with psychiatric disorders among artists, poets and writers and their significantly lower incidence when it comes to scientific fields such as physics, chemistry, etc. But, in any events, creativity should be encouraged; pathology aside, a specialist and moral support ought to intervene in order to overcome creative blocks.

Acknowledgement This paper was published under the frame of European Social Fund, Human Resources Development Operational Programme 2007-2013, project no. POSDRU/159/1.5/S/ 138776.


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Raluca Soare Trifu Iuliu Hatieganu University of Medicine

Doina Cosman Iuliu Hatieganu University of Medicine

Bogdan C.S. Pirvu Iuliu Hatieganu University of Medicine

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Title Annotation:Nature through nurture
Author:Trifu, Raluca Soare; Cosman, Doina; Pirvu, Bogdan C.S.
Publication:Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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