I’ve recently read an article from The Scientific American called The Unleashed Mind: Why Creative People Are Eccentric. I have always intuited a bridge between creative thought and schizophrenic thought patterns; just look at the music of Captain Beefheart, the writing of James Joyce or the artwork of Max Ernst. But I have never known exactly why nor have I had any evidence to back up that claim. This article does a great job in explaining why our most creative thinkers are also often ill-fitted to blend in with society at large.
Apparently, our brains are equipped with neurological filters designed to overlook the vast majority of information coming in through our sense organs and to look for only the things necessary for survival. But these filters vary from person to person and sometimes allow completely irrelevant information into our brain, most often associated with schizophrenic or schizotypal behavior. But this irrelevant information can sometimes lead a person to make connections that we often associate with creativity or even genius.
Shelley Carson says it much more eloquently than me. Here is a portion of the article:
How could weird thoughts and behaviors enhance a person’s ability to think creatively? My research suggests that these manifestations of schizotypal personality in and of themselves do not promote creativity; certain cognitive mechanisms that may underlie eccentricity could also promote creative thinking, however. In my “shared vulnerability” model of how creativity and eccentricity are related, I theorize that one of these underlying mechanisms is a propensity for cognitive disinhibition.
Too Much Information
Cognitive disinhibition is the failure to ignore information that is irrelevant to current goals or to survival. We are all equipped with mental filters that hide most of the processing that goes on in our brains behind the scenes. So many signals come in through our sensory organs, for example, that if we paid attention to all of them we would be overwhelmed. Furthermore, our brains are constantly accessing imagery and memories stored in our mental files to process and decode incoming information. Thanks to cognitive filters, most of this input never reaches conscious awareness.
There are individual differences in how much information we block out, however; both schizotypal and schizophrenic individuals have been shown to have reduced functioning of one of these cognitive filters, called latent inhibition (LI). Reduced LI appears to increase the amount of unfiltered stimuli reaching our conscious awareness and is associated with offbeat thoughts and hallucinations. It is easy to see that allowing unfiltered information into consciousness could lead to strange perceptual experiences, such as hearing voices or seeing imaginary people.
Cognitive disinhibition is also likely at the heart of what we think of as the aha! experience. During moments of insight, cognitive filters relax momentarily and allow ideas that are on the brain’s back burners to leap forward into conscious awareness, in the same manner that bizarre thoughts surface in the mind of the psychotic individual. Consider this example from Sylvia Nasar’s 1998 book A Beautiful Mind, about Nobel Prize winner (and diagnosed with schizophrenia) John Forbes Nash. When asked why he believed that aliens from outer space were contacting him, he responded: “Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.” (Nash’s case illustrates how the cognitive mechanism of the eureka moment is similar to the delusional experience called thought insertion, in which individuals suffering from psychosis believe that outside forces have placed thoughts in their brains. Most people suffering from psychosis or schizophrenia do not produce ideas that are considered creative, however. The ability to use cognitive disinhibition in a creative way depends on the presence of additional cognitive abilities associated with a high level of functioning.)