Dopamine, Creativity, Genius and Madness

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that we tend to associate with ‘reward’. Whenever we do something that our brain/body thinks is ‘positive’ (winning the lottery or eating a cake for instance) we will experience a rush of dopamine which serves to reinforce that behaviour/stimulus.

It’s a little more complicated than that though. Actually dopamine only enforces the behaviour or stimulus in order to make us more likely to seek it again; but it isn’t necessary in order for us to ‘feel good’. Meaning in other words that even without dopamine we will be able to ‘enjoy’ eating cake, it’s just that the behaviour won’t be reinforced to the same extent. Likewise dopamine can also be produced when we anticipate success or a reward, and it can be produced when we just ‘come close’ to experiencing achieving something. So it’s a complex interplay.

And more than that, dopamine is also a stimulant that can increase communication between the neurons generally and amp up your brain for a range of effects.

Now research has found a potential link between dopamine and creativity – and it may just help us to explain the long-standing idea that truly creative ‘geniuses’ are often mentally unstable.

Creativity and Mental Stability

It has long been thought that highly creative people had something in common with those suffering from mental illnesses. This belief is apparent whenever you look at the depiction of intelligence in the media – most of the most creative and smartest characters will be somewhat unhinged and prone to speaking in riddles or dressing as though they have no understanding of social norms.

There are many possible explanations for this. Some believe that creative geniuses are simply very much ‘in their own heads’ as a result of having such interesting and complex subjects to think about. Another possibility is that these characters are so smart that their actions merely appear like madness to those of us unable to operate on the same plane as them. Others theorise that you need to be a little less conventional in your thinking patterns if you’re going to make the unique connections that often lead to new ideas.

Dopamine Function

Now research from the Karolinska Institute has shed light on a possible connection to dopamine. Looking at the dopamine receptors (D2 receptors) of ‘highly creative’ people, they found that the dopamine systems were similar to those observed in people suffering with schizophrenia in particular. The researchers postulate that dopamine receptor genes may be linked to the capacity for ‘divergent thought’.

The study, which was led by one Dr Ullen and used psychological tests to measure divergent thinking, found specifically that ‘highly creative’ types, as with schizophrenics, demonstrated a low density of D2 receptors in the thalamus. The role of the thalamus, among other things, is as a ‘filter’ which decides which thoughts and which information should make it to the cortex for reasoning to take place.

Having fewer D2 receptors then might cause less signal ‘filtering’ meaning that you have more information available to the cortex and are better able to come up with ‘novel’ solutions as a result and to ‘think outside the box’. On the negative side however, these sometimes illogical associations and connections could also be partly responsible for the kind of thinking seen in schizophrenic patients.

You can read the original study here.

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