Mad geniuses, brilliant artists lapping up their lead paint, and survivors of dark childhoods, seem to be cut from the same psychiatric cloth. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have been linked with creative minds, but the theory that there is an overlap between certain mental disorders and creativity doesn’t just stop there.

They share the common denominator of a mental disorder. To test the theory, a genomic analysis company, deCODE, based out of Iceland, studied the genetic information of 86,292 Icelanders to look for trends in schizophrenia patients. The study, published in the journal Nature, found within that group, 1,024 participants belonged to artistic societies of actors, dancers, musicians, visual artists, and writers. After looking at their genes, they were 17 percent more likely to carry variants linked with mental disorders.

“To be creative, you have to think differently,” Kari Stefansson, the founder and CEO of deCODE, told The Guardian. “And when we are different, we have a tendency to be labelled strange, crazy, and even insane. Often, when people are creating something new, they end up straddling between sanity and insanity.”

The researchers at deCODE took it to the next level and searched for the same genetic link in four studies conducted in the Netherlands and Sweden. Of the 27,345 total participants, researchers found nearly 25 percent of those with creative professions carried genetic variants linked to mental disorders, ultimately reinforcing their previous findings. In 2013, a study published in the journal of Psychiatric Research came to a similar conclusion. However, the creative professionals had gene variants that increased their risk for all psychiatric disorders, and were more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“I think these results support the old concept of the mad genius,” Stefansson said. “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 one percent of the population pays the price for it. It means that a lot of the good things we get in life, through creativity, come at a price.”

The Cost of Mental Illness

Having poor nutrition also pays a price. Remember when Van Gogh nibbled on paint chips? The "Starry Night" artist, who remained poor throughout his life, suffered from lead poisoning. As a result, his retinas swelled, which causes one to see light in circles like halos around objects. He also suffered from a bipolar disorder, which experts believe to have influenced his greatest pieces.

The tangled link between mental illness and nutrition doesn’t stop there. Food nourishes our minds, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and as a result can increase mental health problems and even change the way the brain functions. An imbalance of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals all play an intrinsic role in how the body and mind function on a daily basis. According to a 2008 study, long-term deprivation of a food group can even flip the switch to turn on mental disorders such as depression. However, nurture influences nature. If a person maintained proper nutrition throughout their developmental years into adulthood, they may never trigger the onset of a disorder.

The quality of one's childhood also plays an important role in their mental and developmental outcome. Adults surviving child abuse are at risk for a long list of mental disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia, among others. From a positive perspective, children who had had an untable upbringing are also more likely to express creativity in adulthood. A child relies on their parent for physical and emotional survival and if they aren't equipped to provide a steady and secure childhood, the child begins to find creative ways to manage their instability and anxiety.

Since the Human Genome Project began mapping large populations of DNA in 1990, the genetic variants linked to mental disorders have increased rapidly, which interact with a person’s family and cultural environment, according to the Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders. Seemingly harmless everyday behavior could change the way a mind works because of particular genetic susceptibility.

An athlete who develops a ritual before a game, a practice some coaches encourage, may find it helps them stay calm and focused before the whistle blows during a big game. It’s when these rituals cross into superstition territory that an individual risks triggering a mental disorder, such as obsessive compulsive disorder. The rituals become necessary parts of an individual’s day, making them unable to live a productive life without them.

Creative minds may have the mark of the same phenomenon. While mental disorder patients enter into creative careers at a higher frequency than others, the artistic outlets may be triggers for genetic risk factors lying within their DNA. Mental disorder treatment encourages artistic outlets, which may also guide patients toward artistically expressive occupations. As of yet, researchers are not entirely clear whether the genetic link they found will apply to people who simply feel creative or if they are actually talented and produce high-quality work.

“Belonging to an artistic society, or working in art or literature, does not prove a person is creative,” Stefansson said. “But the fact is that 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. Nearly all mental hospitals use art therapy, and so when patients come out, many are attracted to artistic positions and artistic pursuits.”

Source: Stefansson K, Power RA, Steinberg S, et al. Polygenic risk scores for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder predict creativity. Nature. 2015.