CLOSE
istock
istock

Scientists: The 'Tortured Artist' Is a Real Thing

istock
istock

The trope of the tortured creative genius has persisted since Plato proposed banning poetry—long enough to seem like more than mere coincidence. From the emotionally unstable writer to the suicidal actor to the artist who cuts off his own ear, history is riddled with examples that bring the myth to life. But is there any science linking creativity output to madness? A new—and controversial—study concludes that indeed, creative genius and mental disorders are connected at a genetic level.

The new research, published in Nature Neuroscience, comes from Dr. Kári Stefánsson, a neurologist and CEO of a biological research company called deCODE Genetics. Stefánsson and his colleagues studied genetic data from more than 80,000 people in Iceland looking for genetic variants that increase the risk of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. They then looked for those variants in 1000 “creative” people and found these people were 17 percent more likely to carry the variants for mental illness than noncreative types.

“The risk for schizophrenia is substantially higher in creative professions than in the average population in Iceland," Stefánsson told NPR.

The team then replicated these results looking at data from large studies carried out in Sweden and the Netherlands. In these findings, the variants for mental disorders were nearly 25 percent more common in creative people. "What we have shown is basically is that schizophrenia and creativity share biology," Stefánsson says.

Not so fast, some researchers are saying. “Any particular set of genes is only going to explain a very small part of variation in any psychological trait," says Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Indeed, the variants in the new study have a tiny, miniscule impact on creativity—less than 1 percent.

The study authors defined creative people as those working in an artistic profession or belonging to national artistic societies. But “belonging to an artistic society, or working in art or literature, does not prove a person is creative,” Albert Rothenberg, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, tells the Guardian. “Many people who have mental illness do try to work in jobs that have to do with art and literature, not because they are good at it, but because they’re attracted to it. And that can skew the data.”

This isn't the first time researchers have found a link between creativity and madness. A 2012 study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that creative professionals are 8 percent more likely than the general population to be bipolar. Writers are especially vulnerable, the researchers say, being 120 percent more prone to suffer from bipolar disorder. Writers were also more likely to abuse substances and take their own lives. 

Another study also suggests creatives are more likely to have relatives with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder than the general public. But what’s the real connection between those characteristics? Is this about genes, or can it be chalked up to environmental influences? 

Yet another theory says creativity and mental illness share a process called “cognitive disinhibition,” or a failure to filter out all the useless information one encounters in the world. As Eric Jaffe at Co.Design explains it, “this failure may make schizotypal personalities more prone to delusional thoughts or mental confusion; on the flipside, it could make creative minds more fertile.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Dan Bell
arrow
Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Art
The Simple Optical Illusion That Makes an Image Look Like It's Drawing Itself
iStock
iStock

Artist James Nolan Gandy invents robot arms that sketch intricate mathematical shapes with pen and paper. When viewed in real time, the effect is impressive. But it becomes even more so when the videos are sped up in a timelapse. If you look closely in the video below, the illustration appears to materialize faster than the robot can put the design to paper. Gizmodo recently explained how the illusion works to make it look like parts of the sketch are forming before the machine has time to draw them.

The optical illusion isn’t an example of tricky image editing: It’s the result of something called the wagon wheel effect. You can observe this in a car wheel accelerating down the highway or in propeller blades lifting up a helicopter. If an object makes enough rotations per second, it can appear to slow down, move backwards, or even stand still.

This is especially apparent on film. Every “moving image” we see on a screen is an illusion caused by the brain filling in the gaps between a sequence of still images. In the case of the timelapse video below, the camera captured the right amount of images, in the right order, to depict the pen as moving more slowly than it did in real life. But unlike the pen, the drawing formed throughout the video isn't subject to the wagon-wheel effect, so it still appears to move at full speed. This difference makes it look like the sketch is drawing itself, no pen required.

Gandy frequently shares behind-the-scenes videos of his mechanical art on his Instagram page. You can check out some of his non-timelapse clips like the one below to better understand how his machines work, then visit his website to browse and purchase the art made by his 'bots.

And if you think his stuff is impressive, make sure to explore some of the incredible art robots have made in the past.

[h/t Gizmodo]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios