People called “weird” by their peers may have a leg up in life, at least in one respect.
Researchers have found that a quirky or socially awkward approach to life, often considered a hindrance, may be a key to becoming a great artist, composer or inventor.
Vincent van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1889. The deeply troubled artist is believed by some psychologists to have had a schizotypal personality.
The researchers studied people with “schizotypal” personalities—who act oddly, but aren’t mentally ill—and found they’re more creative than either normal or fully schizophrenic people. To access their creativity, these people rely heavily on the right sides of their brains.
The work, by psychologists Brad Folley and Sohee Park of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., was published online last week by the journal Schizophrenia Research.
Psychologists believe a number of creative luminaries had schizotypal personalities, including Vincent Van Gogh, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson and Isaac Newton.
“The idea that schizotypes have enhanced creativity has been out there for a long time,” but no one has studied how their brains work, Folley said. He and Park conducted two tests to compare the creative thinking processes of schizotypes, schizophrenics and “normal” people.
In the first test, participants were shown pictures of various household objects and asked to make up new functions for them. Schizotypes were found to be most creative in suggesting new uses. Schizophrenics and average subjects performed similarly to one another.
Schizophrenia has also often been linked to creativity, but many schizophrenics have disorganized thoughts “almost to the point where they can’t really be creative because they cannot get all of their thoughts coherent enough to do that,” Folley said.
“Schizotypes, on the other hand, are free from the severe, debilitating symptoms surrounding schizophrenia and also have an enhanced creative ability.”
In the second test, the three groups again were asked to identify new uses for everyday objects, as well as to perform a non-creative task, for comparison. During all tasks, their brain activity was monitored using a brain scanning technique called near-infrared optical spectroscopy.
The results showed all groups used both sides of the brain for creative tasks. But activation of the right sides of the schizotype brains was dramatically greater than that of the schizophrenic and average subjects.
“In the scientific community, the popular idea that creativity exists in the right side of the brain is thought to be ridiculous,” since both halves of the brain are needed to make new associations and perform other creative tasks, Folley said.
But he found something slightly different.
“All three groups, schizotypes, schizophrenics and normal controls, did use both hemispheres when performing creative tasks. But the brain scans of the schizotypes showed a hugely increased activation of the right hemisphere compared to the schizophrenics and the normal controls.”
The researchers said the results suggest schizotypes and other psychoses-prone populations draw on the left and right sides of their brains differently than the average population. This use of the brain for a variety of tasks may be related to enhanced creativity.
Folley cited work by Swiss neuroscientist Peter Brugger, who found that the left side of the brain controls everyday associations, such as recognizing the car key on your keychain, and verbal abilities; whereas the right side controls new associations, such as finding a new use for a object or navigating a new place.
Brugger speculated that schizotypes should make new associations faster because they are better at accessing both sides of the brain – a prediction verified in a subsequent study, Folley said.
The theory, Folley added, can also explain research showing that a disproportional number of schizotypes and schizophrenics are neither right- nor left-handed. They instead use both hands for a variety of tasks, suggesting that they recruit both sides of their brains for an array of tasks, more than the average person.
“The lack of specialization for certain tasks in brain hemispheres [halves] could be seen as a liability, but the increased communication between the hemispheres actually could provide added creativity,” Folley said.