New Study Tests the ‘Mad Genius’ Theory

It has been said “there is a fine line between genius and insanity,” with insanity referring to psychopathology. But is that statement really true? Some very creative individuals do not have psychotic tendencies, while some people with psychosis seem incapable of expressing creative thoughts or sentiments. However, psychoticism, which can include severe mental health issues such as bipolar or schizophrenia, can also encompass less debilitating subclinical levels that manifest as depression, schizoid, schizoaffective, criminal and hostile behaviors, impulsivity, and aggression, some of which are often linked to creativity. In support of this theory, many highly creative figures in history experienced bouts with these and other psychological problems.

Selcuk Acar of the Torrence Creativity Center at the University of Georgia wanted to put this idea to the test. In a recent study, Acar analyzed 32 studies and reviewed data on more than 6,700 participants made up mostly of college students. The results revealed that although there was some link between creativity and psychoticism, the relationship was modest at best. Additionally, the link was evident only when creativity was gauged by uniqueness. “Relating this back to the mad genius hypothesis, it appears that creativity and psychopathology may have only an occasional and very specific relationship rather than a broad and general one,” Acar said. In fact, creativity, as measured by uniqueness, was related to psychoticism only when it was considered original. Acar points out that creativity stems from originality, but does not always result in something unique. Likewise, original concepts do not always result in something creative.

Upon further investigation, Acar noticed that there was very little demographic difference in the data. Specifically, the connection between creativity and psychoticism was not stronger among men than women, or among older than younger participants. Some subtle differences did appear between participants who felt at liberty to answer the questions freely when compared to those who felt prohibited from being truly honest, perhaps because of their profession or position of authority. Because the data reviewed in this analysis was gathered from college students and perhaps even staff members, it may be prudent to conduct further research with a less inhibited sample. Acar believes future efforts should also look at how creativity and psychoticism are influenced by personality traits and other factors relative to conceptual processes.

Acar, Selcuk, and Mark A. Runco. Psychoticism and creativity: A meta-analytic review. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 64.4 (2012): 341-50. Print.

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  • shelley


    November 30th, 2012 at 3:07 PM

    The more you are around really smart people you see just how very little common sense most of the have :/

  • glen f

    glen f

    November 30th, 2012 at 5:00 PM

    all of the mad genius concept sounds great in a book or a movie.but cut to real life and that is hardly the case.while there may have been such people in history and even presently,that would be a one-in-a-million case.having psychotic symptoms does not make anyone better at creativity and when that does happen in that one case,the symptoms or the condition was probably not the cause.

  • Bailey


    December 1st, 2012 at 1:48 AM

    So let me get this straight in layman’s language – in rare cases, the brain function becomes so different due to a disorder that it starts to resemble that of a genius and the person actually acquires unique abilities because of it? That’s quite incredible!

    But I am yet to meet a mad genius in real life, we always seem to only ‘hear’ of these there medical proof that this can actually happen?

  • Fran


    December 2nd, 2012 at 5:10 AM

    I am still not too sure I get it- is this kind of like someone who is menatlly handicapped but somehow is this genius savant in other areas? Could these instances be similar?

  • Mark


    December 2nd, 2012 at 10:54 PM

    Shew! I am so glad to read this! People tell me I’m creative all the time, and I’ve always wondered if that means I’m crazy, too! I don’t think I’m crazy, but I also realize that a lot of people who are crazy don’t realize they are crazy. So, maybe I’m crazy and just don’t know it. But, this article made me feel much better. So, thank you!!

  • Andy


    December 3rd, 2012 at 9:52 AM

    I think this is more of a fiction story inspired thing than a fact.It sounds thrilling and nice- a mad scientist in his lab doing all sorts of amazing things and yet incapable of the basic social life.

    Cut to real life and it’s just a farce. Untrue and ignorant. Geniuses are far and few and if they has psychotic tendencies their genius would never see the light of day!

  • Michele


    February 19th, 2013 at 5:50 PM

    From experience? Of the people I know with bipolar, half of them are creatively gifted. You might consider that only borderline relevant but when I say the only truly creative, talented people I know are bipolar? No, not all bipolar people are gifted but there is some correlation. The mind works differently for people with these illnesses and, logically, it isn’t going to be 100% bad or burden. Many people with bipolar appreciate what they get in benefit – not in a weird way at all but do attribute their talent to it. One friend can actually trace the bipolar in her family by who’s artistic. And, please remember there are different degrees and classifications of illnesses. It’s not simply (and crassly) “crazy”.

  • Thiago


    January 25th, 2014 at 7:03 AM

    Psycho-logists seems to me extremelly lazy. For christ, OBVIOUS that REAL creativity to be related to ‘uniqueness’. Stupid and very lazy people continue to make ‘research’ and don’t understand your own results, pffff.

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