The cover story in this month’s issue of The Atlantic, is about the Secrets of the Creative Brain. Neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen studies creativity in the human brain to try to figure out where creative genius comes from—and why it’s so often accompanied by mental illness.
Within the first paragraph, Andreasen discusses Kurt Vonnegut, a prime case study. The beloved American writer suffered from intermittent depression, among other issues. Many of his family members, a number of whom displayed great creativity in their careers and lives, also struggled with their mental health.
Like Vonnegut, all of the subjects in Andreasen’s first 15 year study were members of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (yes, for those of you who watch Girls—Spoiler Alert if you haven’t finished Season 3—that is the same school to which Hannah has been accepted).
Andreasen’s subsequent studies over the years have found that creativity doesn’t necessarily require a higher IQ (120 will do). Rather, creative people exhibit more brain activity in their association cortices (the parts of our brain that help us interpret and use the information collected by our primary visual, auditory, sensory, and motor regions).
Why might greater activity in the association cortices sometimes cause creative genius—while at other times causing mental illness? Andreasen explains:
Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all of these connections actually exist… Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. And some people, like [mathematician] John Nash, are both.