The curse of creativity: What is driving creative people into taking their own lives?

“We of the craft are all crazy” – Lord Byron

With overpopulation, environmental deterioration, terrorism, political dysfunction, dictators, cronyism, disputes and debates over trivial matters, it’s hard to argue with the notion that the world itself is not crazy!

Today, thanks to low cost genetics, we can analyze all kinds of interesting correlations. For example, out of the ~26000 human genes, which versions are more representative of people with blue eyes or curly hair or heart disease, or even versions of genes that are found more commonly in CEOs and psychopaths. Studies that aim to find a correlation between genetic markers and a certain human attribute are known as genome wide association studies. These studies simply aim to correlate some attribute with specific set of gene markers and indicate how much more representative the gene marker is of that attribute. For example, blonde haired people may be xx% more likely to carry a specific version of the hair color gene or that people with O positive blood group are yy% more likely to carry a specific version of the HLA gene.

But remember that correlation is not causation. We still would not know if the gene actually caused that condition or merely happens to be associated with it. For example, there is considerable debate about whether LDL cholesterol causes heart disease or it merely happens to be correlated with another factor  that actually causes the disease.

In a large study, scientists in Iceland reported that people in creative professions, such as painters, musicians, dancers, writers were 25% more likely to carry genetic risk factors for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia than those in less creative roles, such as laborers, farmers and sales people. According to the author’s own admission, the genetic link only explains a tiny part of the variation between creatives and others.

There are several other research studies that have indicated a link between genetics, depression and creativity. Admittedly, there is no genetic smoking gun, yet. We are still in the early days of genetics. However, it would be a mistake to trivialize the role of genetics. Human physiology is a manifestation of the design encoded in our genes which constantly interacts with the environment in a feedback loop.

One can see clear manifestations of genetics in extreme sports performance

You have to be tall to play in the NBA and you cannot train to be tall. In other sports such as swimming, the beneficial features for a swimmer are long arms and torso and a short lower body. Features that are sometimes referred to as marfan-like, named after marfan syndrome a disease. Hemochromatosis, a condition which increases the amount of iron in blood may provide an advantage in endurance sports. If everyone could train to sing like Beyonce, then she would not be so famous. Obviously, her vocal apparatus is far superior to the common person.

This is what the eye can see and we do not have difficulty attributing genetics to what the eye can see, but we tend to be dismissive about  attributing genetics to what the eye cannot see, such as creative process.

Extreme human performance in sports, creative arts and other endeavors is an anomaly and these individuals are “gifted” outliers not only in genetics but also in their passion and commitment to these arts. Sure, they have to bust their chops training, practicing etc, that is because they are competing with people who are also outliers, not the regular joe.

Understanding the genetics of depression will help treat depression not only in creative people but millions of others worldwide. Our body is a constant flux of biochemical reactions. Sure, there are environmental events such as family issues, financial issues among others. But these are registered at the molecular level as release of various  chemicals that modulate how the event is perceived by the brain. Some of these chemical reactions can get out of hand in vicious feedback loops  and lead to accumulation of large amounts, which drive people to psychological extremes. 

Life itself cannot be chemically treated

We need to fix our lives. However, drugs can help us prevent this runaway buildup of neuro modulating chemicals, during certain stressful times. Yes, genes play a role in how much of these are released in each individual and how sensitive or insensitive our brain cells are to these biochemicals, just as it is in the rest of the body. For example, there are some people who are more sensitive to insulin while others are less. This concept is well established in biochemistry. Some individuals can be more or less sensitive to the effect of serotonin, which affects how they react to stressful events. But at the end of the day, drug therapy can play a pivotal role in controlling depression alongside behavioral and identifying the right genes will be critical to developing effective drugs to combat depression.