creative genius left brain
Last update: 8/31/17.

When I was a senior in high school, we had to solve—what was for me—incredibly difficult differential equations for our math homework. The solution to one problem could take a full page or two and several hours to complete. The next day in class, the teacher would call on one of us who would have to stand up and read the solution to a problem from his notebook.

One nerdy-looking kid, let’s call him U, never did any homework. But when called upon, he would stand up and read the correct solution of a blank page! The kid was a math whiz and everybody was sure he was going to end up a professor somewhere.

Y, another classmate, also solved the problems (in a few minutes, I might add), sometimes coming at them from a completely unexpected angle that was breathtaking in its originality. How did he see this solution so clearly when the rest of us, including the teacher, saw only the conventional path to the solution? We didn’t really know.

Y went on to become an internationally renowned mathematician while U ended up a lab technician. Both boys had superior IQs. But one was closer to a savant who could perform incredible math feats while the other saw patterns that ordinary people did not—he was a creative genius.


What do we know about genius and creativity?

Lewis Madison Terman
Lewis Madison Terman, author of Genetic Studies of Genius | via Wikipedia

Lewis Terman, the creator of the IQ scale, initiated the longest-running longitudinal study of genius in the world. In 1921, he recruited the creme de la creme, the top 1%, of third to eighth graders in California schools. In total, 857 boys and 672 girls, all having IQ scores between 135 and 200, participated in the study, being re-evaluated at regular intervals throughout their lives. The results are published in Terman’s book, Genetic Studies of Genius, now running at five volumes as well as a monograph and dozens of articles.

And the results? Well, the high IQ people didn’t do too badly in life. Physically, they were taller, healthier, and more athletic than their non-genius peers; the only physical deficit that was more common was myopia (near-sightedness). They were also more socially mature and generally better adjusted. And, they had happy marriages and, in general, they earned high salaries.

But 30% of the men and 33% of the women didn’t graduate from college. A large number of them ended up in semi-skilled trades and clerical positions. Importantly, by and large, high IQ did not predict creative achievement in later life.

When the cohort of 757 individuals who were available for follow-up at mid-life was evaluated, the researchers found that only three were engaged in creative activities. One was an Oscar-winning film director and two were successful writers.

Conversely, several studies have shown that groups of highly creative people (e.g., well-known writers, successful architects), have mean IQs in the 120 range. An IQ in this range is considered to be “superior,” but it is not in the “genius” range.

So what does it take to be creative? Before we answer that, we have to take a look at where and how the brain thinks.


Where does the brain think?

Nancy Andreasen is the chairwoman of the Dept. of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa Medical School. In 2000, she was awarded the President’s National Medal of Science for pioneering use of brain imaging to study cognitive processes and mental illness. Being at the University of Iowa, where the famed Writers’ Workshop is located, she had a rich source of creative subjects to study creativity. She summarized her seminal work on the subject in 2011 and in an article in Atlantic magazine in 2014.

In an intensive case-control study, each subject in her study was interviewed in depth for two days. Everything was explored: their personal history, family history, mental illnesses in the family, their history of creative accomplishments, their work habits, the ways they develop their ideas and complete their work, and their own thoughts as to how their creative process works.

They were then instructed, while they were in an MRI machine, to take 3 association tests. One is a word association test, during which the subject silently reads a word and then responds with the first word that comes to mind. The other is a picture association test, during which the subject looks at a picture and responds with the first thought about the picture that comes to mind.

These two tasks tap into the process of making verbal and visual associations. A third task was selected in order to examine brain activity during abstract pattern recognition, a process similar to that occurring during some aspects of scientific creativity.

Unsurprisingly, during the word association test, the word association regions of the brain became activated. Likewise, during the picture association test, the visual association regions lit up. And during the pattern recognition test, the visual-spatial association regions became active.

Then, a fourth task was added. The subjects were told to just relax and let their brains free-associate. They were told that they could think about whatever pops up. This is what is called the default state. Andreasen refers to this as Random Episodic Silent Thoughts (REST). But the fMRI showed something far different from resting.

The process of “free-association” allows the association cortices of the human brain to converse with one another in a free and uncensored manner! And, as one would guess, the difference between the creative subjects and the comparison group was the intensity of the interactions between the association cortices. In creative people, there is simply more of it.


How does thinking happen?

This study tells us where thinking happens. But not how it happens. One answer to the question is that the prefrontal cortex, the executive center of the brain, filters out the “noise,” integrates the relevant input, and voila, a thought is born.

However, this is misleading. The current models of the brain conceptualize it as being made up of distributed circuits comprised of nodes that mutually share the responsibility for creating its outputs. If that is the case, then how do we go from chaotic babble to coherent thought?

In 1987, James Gleick published a best-seller called, Chaos: Making a New Science. Chaos in the biblical sense meant just that: Total disorder. But chaos theory is also called complexity theory. It is the study of dynamic and nonlinear processes and of self-organizing systems. If you are feeling intimidated by this description, then just imagine a kaleidoscope. As you turn it, the colorful little pieces inside self-organize into beautiful patterns.

Self-organization occurs in a variety of biological systems. We see self-organization in the flocking of birds and in the seemingly sudden organization of millions upon millions of solitary grasshoppers to form a well-organized army of locusts.

All of these things produce a form of organization in which the control is not centralized, but rather is distributed throughout the entire system. The system is dynamic and changes arise spontaneously and frequently produce something new. Again, think of the kaleidoscope. Every once in a while a more coherent pattern emerges, like a perfect polygon of some incredible color combination.

The human brain is the ultimate self-organizing system. Creativity is one of its most important emergent properties.


Creative, but crazier?

John Forbes Nash Jr.
John Forbes Nash, Jr. | by Peter Badge | via Wikipedia | CC BY-SA 3.0

The stereotypical image of creative geniuses is that they are just not “completely normal”. Just think of Van Gogh who severed his ear. Or William Styron’s description of his suicidal depression in his bestseller, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. Or Robert Schumann suffering from debilitating, and ultimately fatal, manic-depression as he wrote his third symphony.

Evidently, a genius doesn’t have to be overtly psychotic. Beethoven started out quite “sane”, socially adept, and writing passionate love letters to a succession of young women, most of them his music pupils. His beautiful moonlight sonata, for example, was written for his 16-year-old pupil and love object Countess Giulietta Guicciardi. But as his deafness progressed, his anguish grew deeper and he turned into a disheveled, cantankerous, financially strapped old man. But he was not “insane”. His letters of that period are full of painful sadness, as was his music. And then, as a last act of brilliant defiance, he writes the monumental 9th symphony and its stirring “Ode to Joy”—not a piece of art born of madness, or deep depression, but pure creative genius.

In her first Iowa study, Andreasen found that 80% of her creative subjects had had some kind of mood disorder at some time in their lives, compared with 30% of the control group. Conversely, there is evidence that high scorers on neuroticism tend to be more creative than low scorers. One study of 257 professional painters and sculptors living in Germany found that the male artists were significantly more neurotic than the male non-artists. Similarly, individuals working in creative roles in the advertising industry tend to score significantly higher on neuroticism than employees in noncreative roles.

So what gives? Why are they more prone to paranoia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disease, and schizophrenia?

In her Atlantic magazine article, Andreasen quotes from “A Beautiful Mind,” Sylvia Nasar’s biography of John Nash, the mathematician who saw patterns that others could not and, among other things (like developing the mathematical foundation for game theory), proposed a cryptography machine (disclosed by the NSA) that was based on computational hardness. John Nash was schizophrenic.

A fellow mathematician who visited him while he was institutionalized at McLean Hospital, asked him “How could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical truth, believe that you are being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world?” To which Nash replied, “because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”

As Andreason concludes,

“Some people see things others cannot, and when they are right, we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and when they are wrong, we call them mentally ill. Some people, like John Nash, do both.”

This post was first published 08/30/2015. It has been reviewed and updated by the author.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


    • Yes dr. Helen Borel is a fake I went to try to make an appointment with her insisted I have $10 because she thinks she’s so special and knows everything and then when I finally talked to her she tells me I’m being inappropriate trying to beg her to see her and says I can use a regular doctor. Dumb know-it-all b**** I’m not regular I’m an empath psychic I thought I could trust her because she talks about unique people getting to know you crap don’t need a stupid butt and love you my wife won’t kill her ass for making me upset

  1. The article WHAT IS CREATIVE GENIUS is a travesty and a waste of anyone’s time. It does not explain “creativity” nor “genius” nor “creative genius”. What is the purpose of writing such a piece of superficial garbage like this? I guess it’s been written by AN UGLY MIND of a boring “make-believe writer” who couldn’t take the time to interview Real Artists and learn about real Creative Processes. Ugh.
    Artists don’t have any more psychiatric illnesses than nonartists. That idea is garbage. And John Nash, the genius mathematician, could not have benefitted from his voices and hallucinations..they’d have frightened him and gotten in his way. Whatever he accomplished with his mathematical mind was IN SPITE OF…NOT…BECAUSE OF HIS SCHIZOPHRENIA.

    My experience with my own Creative Process as a Writer plus my expertise working, for a quarter century, with artistic talents as their Psychotherapist has shown me (because I also
    therapize nonartists) that EVERYONE HAS EMOTIONAL ISSUES FROM INFANCY, CHILDHOOD, ADOLESCENCE, YOUNG ADULTHOOD, MIDDLE ADULTHOOD AND ELDER ADULTHOOD (and probably from fetushood and maybe even in the process of the ovum and the sperm of one’s parents uniting). Which means that, despite our early beginnings and later experiences, SOME OF US ARE TALENTED AND SOME OF US ARE NOT TALENTED.
    PERIOD! (Psst! The brain is an endless place. Artists/Creatives go there often to deconstruct and construct. Others rarely, if ever, visit that inner Artist’s Salon. And so they can’t comprehend it. If you want to know the mind of an Artist and about Creative Processes, ask the artists…don’t ask the scientists (tho’ some scientists also are artists).
    ~I am Helen Borel,R.N.,B.A.,M.F.A.,Ph.D…Nurse/Med-Psych-Pharm-Fiction Writer/Poet/Psychoanalyst/Psychotherapist

    • Dear Helen Borel,R.N.,B.A.,M.F.A.,Ph.D…Nurse/Med-Psych-Pharm-Fiction Writer/Poet/Psychoanalyst/Psychotherapist,
      You obviously suffer from all the above ‘creative mental genius syndromes’ but nevertheless find enough space in your comments for verbal garbage of the same level as the author of the above, and at the same time, manage to advertise yourself as the savior of all the ‘crazy geniuses’ of which (of course) you are one!!!.
      Amazing!!! Helen Borel you’re a phony and a fake. I’m sure a lot of gullible people pay you a lot of money for your so called ‘insights’
      Good luck my dear, I hope you sleep well

    • Wow. This commentary is not uncommon likewise emanating from others with similar childhood issues as cited here…of different degrees, I say. And the writer of this commentary may exhibit a higher degree…of some angst? :-)

    • wow…no offense, but for a therapist, you have way too much anger….maby you should take a break from practice and return to work on your own darkneas for a while….
      it is your moral obligation as a therapist…if you really are one…

  2. I am very grateful to Dov Michaeli MD, PhD. and to Nancy Andreasen for giving me a group with whom to identify. I’ve always been a group of one. I was a lousy student because I couldn’t concentrate on what was being taught. Today they understand what they were confounded by when I was in class. Instead of classwork I was drawing diesel trucks and trains, all this while my IQ tested well above average. The reading assigned didn’t interest me and at about ten years old I was reading Kafka and Dostoevsky. I was diagnosed manic-depressive when I was nineteen (1962), and have been hospitalized twice. Usually, when I see a problem in logistics I also see an obviously better way to accomplish the desired goals, amazed that no one assigned to the project saw what I saw. Most of my paintings and drawings have been difficult to explain to people and when I’ve tried they usually got bored and stopped my explanation one way or another. I am now 72. It was assuaging to read about others with my experiences. Thank you so much.
    micki SCHLOSS

  3. I have received no acknowledgment of the receipt of my comment.

    However, as an addendum, please know that I have designed and built two unique retail establishments and have made additions and changes to three private homes.

  4. Sorry, Micki. For some reason I haven’t seen your comment. Your story is completely consistent with that of many other creative geniuses. It is too bad that our educational system does not only recognize and abet such talent, it actively discourages it.


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