Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius

By: Nancy C. Andreasen, M.D., Ph.D.

Michelangelo was a stonecutter’s son, Shakespeare the son of a tradesman. What caused them to soar free of apparently ordinary origins to create works of genius? Psychiatrist Andreasen turns to 13th-century Florence to explore how nature and nurture interacted to produce the artistic giants of the Italian Renaissance.



Excerpted from The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius by Nancy C. Andreasen. ©2005 by Nancy C. Andreasen. Published by Dana Press. Reprinted with permission.

Like Leonardo and Michelangelo, most of the fifty other artists described in Vasari’s Lives came from noncreative origins. What caused such great creative genius to emerge? What permitted so many diverse creative abilities to flourish? The nurturance that permitted them to become creative did not occur within their family environments. It came from somewhere else. Michelangelo and Leonardo appear to have been born with a “creative nature.” However, it might never have become fully manifest if there were no “nurture” to develop it. What were the forces that surrounded Leonardo and Michelangelo—and the other Renaissance artists—that may have helped produce this great flowering of the creative human brain, mind, and spirit? I believe that five circumstances must be present to produce a cultural environment that nurtures creativity. 

Freedom, Novelty, and a Sense of Being at the Edge

First and foremost, the Renaissance was an exciting time. After years of medieval scholasticism, the great ideas and techniques of classicism—themselves born in the exciting environment of fifth- and fourth-century (B.C.) Athens—were being rediscovered and reborn. Until the Renaissance, artists simply copied what their masters had done, and philosophers elaborated on the texts of the Church Fathers. The spirit of the Renaissance is the spirit of breaking out of old and oppressive boundaries, doing what people have not yet done, thinking new thoughts, finding new ways to express, experimenting with new techniques, and exploring new ways to perceive man, nature, and religion. The essence of this kind of environment is intellectual freedom. 

And encouraging intellectual freedom is one of the best ways to create creative brains. We have seen in earlier chapters that the creative personality is adventurous, exploratory, tolerant of ambiguity, and intolerant of boundaries and limits. The creative process arises from the ferment of ideas in the brain, turning and colliding until something new emerges. At the neural level associations begin to form where they did not previously exist, and some of these associations are perilously novel. An environment full of intellectual richness and freedom is the ideal one in which to create the creative brain. Renaissance Florence was a bubbling cauldron of such richness and freedom. The works of Plato and Aristotle were being rediscovered and discussed at the Florentine Academy. Polymaths such as Pico della Mirandola were declaring, “I take all knowledge to be my province.” Classical art, glorifying the human form and by implication the human mind and brain, was now available to study and universally recognized as a source of inspiration. 

A Critical Mass of Creative People

It is more difficult for the creative brain to prosper in isolation. Solitude is usually necessary, of course, for the actual creative process to lead to a creative product. But the catalytic substrate for that process is often interaction with others and intellectual exchange of ideas. Art in Florence was created in studios or shops run by master artists and populated by multiple talented young men. Everyone examined what others were doing. They looked within their own shops, but also at the work of others. They looked at the new creations of their contemporaries, getting ideas about the development of new techniques. They also studied what others of an earlier generation had done. In art alone the city was filled with men of genius, bouncing ideas back and forth and borrowing what was best. Add to that the philosophers, poets, and politicians—it was an astonishingly rich congregation of human beings, who created social networks that cross-fertilized one another and opened avenues from which new ideas could emerge. Another self-organizing system, so to speak. 

Put simply, creative people are likely to be more productive and more original if surrounded by other creative people. This too produces an environment in which the creative brain is stimulated to form novel connections and novel ideas. 

A Competitive Atmosphere That Is Free and Fair

Much Renaissance art was commissioned by local guilds or other city authorities. Not unlike the present-day competition to design and build the World Trade Center replacement, authorities invited artists or architects to submit designs, and the one deemed to be superior was selected. This “fair freedom” in the economic sphere gave an additional competitive edge to the enhancement of creativity. As we have seen, creative people are individualistic and confident. They may thrive best when pitted against one another. 

In addition to such overt competition, Renaissance Florence fostered many other more subtle forms of competition. Art at that time had a variety of set themes, many of them drawn from religion: the Crucifixion, the Last Supper, the Pietà, the Madonna and Child, David and Goliath. The existence of such set themes provided artists with a structure within which they could develop new approaches. The existence of some structure is actually a resource that enhances creativity, since it serves as a reference standard in which new variations on themes can be elaborated. Examples of such structures in other domains are the sonnet, the symphony, the opera, the comedy or tragedy, and the epic poem. The use of set themes also provided another context in which competition could occur. When Michelangelo created his David, he and his contemporaries were more than aware that his would be “another David,” referring back to those created by other Renaissance masters such as Donatello. His is titanically grander, and no doubt became so because he could demonstrate that he was an even better sculptor than one of the greatest, in both conceptualization and execution. 

Mentors and Patrons

Although the creative personality tends to be independent and individualistic, creative people are helped by direct nurturance and support. The mentoring system, whereby a senior expert takes a younger novice under his or her (but usually his for many centuries) wing for training in the necessary intellectual and even social tools and skills needed to succeed, is a fundamental teaching method in modern highlevel science. But mentoring has a long history. It derives from a tradition of apprenticeship in many different fields that extends far back in time. The artistic shops and schools of Florence are among the most impressive examples of the power of mentoring. 

Mentoring is itself an art. On the one hand, it requires doing teaching and training—providing structure just as specific art forms and set pieces provide structure. On the other hand, a good mentor must also be able to recognize and reward a student whose abilities are even greater. Some claim that Vasari’s story about Verrocchio abandoning his paintbrushes when faced with Michelangelo’s angel is apocryphal. Even if so, it is a great story with a great moral. As the saying goes, it is a poor teacher who is not surpassed by his students. 

Patrons, wealthy individuals who support artists and scientists, may also be important contributors to creativity. Lorenzo the Magnificent was one of the greatest patrons of all time, finding and embracing talented young people and even bringing them into his household. He gave them psychological support as well as financial support, and he also was instrumental in producing a “critical mass” in the Florentine creative environment. As his accomplishments illustrate, the role of a patron is not simply limited to financial support. The patron gives the artist or scientist an important vote of confidence from a prominent and respected person. Although creative people are confident even to the point of arrogance, they are also self-critical and perfectionistic, and these latter forces may inhibit their creativity. The emotional and intellectual support of a patron is an important nurturing resource that counters those inhibitory forces.

Economic Prosperity

Almost all periods of great creativity, populated by many creators, have been times of economic prosperity. This may not be a mandatory component of a creativity-enhancing environment, but it is certainly helpful. 

Economic prosperity feeds creativity in several ways. It provides the accumulation of intellectual resources in which ideas can be stimulated, in which they can bubble and ferment—the collections of earlier art, the libraries, the salons, and the gardens where people can meet and discuss and argue. It provides the financial resources to attract the numerous people who form the critical mass. It provides the funds for their raw materials —the marble, the paint, the paper, the wood, the glass. It provides the funds to commission artists and pay them for their work. As great cities form and remodel themselves architecturally because of economic prosperity, a visual atmosphere is created that is itself inspiring.

The Importance of Environment

These five factors also characterize the other “cradles of creativity.” An atmosphere of intellectual freedom, ferment, and excitement was also prominent in fifth- and fourth-century Athens, nineteenth-century Paris, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America, the Enlightenment, Tudor and Elizabethan England, and Revolutionary America. So was a critical mass of creative minds, free and fair competition, mentors and patrons, and at least some economic prosperity. If we seek to find social and cultural environmental factors that help to create the creative brain, these must be considered to be important ones. 

The environment into which an individual is born makes a difference. Had Leonardo or Michelangelo been born two hundred years earlier or later, we would never have had the body of work that they produced. Anatomical dissections would not have been possible at an earlier time. Patrons and prosperity would not have been there to support them. Without Lorenzo, Michelangelo would not have been a sculptor. Had Julius II not commissioned the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo would not have turned his hand to fresco. Both Leonardo and Michelangelo would have had a “creative nature,” but it might never have become manifest had they lacked the nurture of a supportive environment. So too it could be for other great creators—Phidias, Plato, Aristotle, Monet, van Gogh, William James, or the Wright Brothers. As I sometimes say (though I hardly rank with the geniuses I have been describing), if I had been born one hundred years ago, I would never have been a neuroscientist or a physician. Neuro-science did not exist, and only rarely were women allowed to study medicine, or even to attend college. 

Environment makes a difference! 


But so does nature. “Nature” is related to heredity, but not identical. 

Where does creative genius come from? How does it arise? These are both questions that everyone would like to answer. 

Our case studies also shed light on these questions. Think about how the brains of Leonardo and Michelangelo were created. 

When these two men were conceived, they were the consequence of shuffling the cards in the genetic deck, with half of the genes coming from the mother and half from the father. A grand challenge in modern science is to figure out how those shuffled genes become translated into complete living organisms, many of them complicated almost beyond imagination. A human being, for example, is somehow produced by forty-six chromosomes and about thirty thousand genes, give or take a few. Somehow these genes must orchestrate the creation of cells and their differentiation so that they form diverse body organs, such as the liver, the kidneys, and the brain. Within the brain there are also many different types of cells. But, most importantly, the human brain is defined by the multiple and complex ways that these cells are connected to one another. At this moment we still know very little about how genes affect the development of the brain in the uterus before birth, or during childhood, adolescence, and adult life. We are almost totally clueless about how genes become translated into complex human traits such as creativity or personality or cognitive style. Lots of people are studying the genetic regulation of small parts of the process. We know that genes produce proteins with funny names like MAP or GAP or SNAP, which affect components of brain development and maturation, such as neurogenesis or synapse formation. But we do not know much (yet) about how genes affect the interconnectedness of the trillions of neurons in our brains and the quadrillions of synapses that talk back and forth to one another. Thus we can say nothing at present about how genes, working at the molecular level, might have an influence on the creation of the creative brain. For now, we have to rely on speculations and hunches, combined with crude empirical methods, such as family studies of heritability. 

What we perhaps can say is that Mother Nature gives creative people brains that are well designed for perceiving and thinking in original ways. Some of that influence must be coded in the genetic shuffle in ways that we do not yet understand. And very likely the gift given by Mother Nature is an enriched ability to make novel associations and to self-organize in the midst of apparent disorganization or even chaos. 

The creative brain may appear unexpectedly, in people who simply seem to have been given innate gifts. Or it may appear within a hereditary context, in people who seem to have a genetic endowment that makes them creative. 

Innate Gifts

One fact that we have to reckon with is that many creative people are creative “by nature,” without any obvious evidence that their creativity is due to genetic factors. These are people whose creativity came “from nowhere” in the genetic sense, but who appear to have had innate gifts even during early childhood. Within them they have a creative drive and passion that cannot be suppressed. How does this occur? At present no one knows. Perhaps distant forebears whom we do not know about were creative, and they provided some creative predisposition. Perhaps these ancestors provided a sufficiently additive accumulation of ordinary creativity to hit a home-run combination in the genetic shuffle. Perhaps an incredibly rich environment made a difference. Perhaps, as Vasari might argue, the gift came directly from God. 

In the case of Leonardo and Michelangelo, we know only about their immediate family history. In both cases the fathers came from the lower ranks of the merchant class and were struggling to maintain their status (although both Michelangelo’s parents had distant connections with the nobility, for whatever that is worth). Leonardo’s genetic deck shuffled his merchant father with an illiterate peasant girl. Michelangelo’s was shuffled through two parents with similar social background. Nothing that we know suggests any family history of creative contributions for either man on either side of the family. However, being from the merchant class may require more spunk or drive than being from the leisure class. 

In early childhood both were noticeably and precociously talented. Leonardo drew, and he sang using the lute—and did both very well. Michelangelo excelled at drawing. Both had brains that were innately gifted with an ability to observe the world around them and reproduce the images created in their minds by transforming them onto paper, without ever being taught to do so. It was in their nature. In terms of formal education, neither had much. Did this actually enhance their creative capacities, by freeing them from preconceptions about the world or from rigid rules and structures? Possibly. Did growing up in a more rural area help them to become more creative, by giving them a greater spatial extent of land and sky and a greater diversity of animal life to study than they might have had as city dwellers? Possibly.

At an early age they must have been honing their mental capacities to perceive and record three-dimensional relationships, simply by seeing and thinking and making mental manipulations of their observations. On this base they would later build their interests in anatomical dissection and rendering the human body accurately, their ability to solve architectural and engineering problems that eluded others, and of course their skills as painters and sculptors. Somehow an innate gift, intrinsically coded in their brains by genetic influences that we do not as yet understand, was present. It is manifested by cognitive and personality traits such as curiosity, openness to experience, and self-confidence. These traits can be further enhanced by environmental influences, and probably were in both men, because the human brain is “plastic.” That is, it is shaped intensively throughout life by interactions with the world around it. 

Then, in early adolescence, both were identified as potentially gifted artists. Both became apprentices to great artistic masters of the time. Both quickly learned the “basics” and soon surpassed their masters. In short, they were launched on the careers that they would follow for the remainder of their lives. Each apparently realized, at a very young age, that he was a genius. Each was driven to be original, independent, and creative. Given that both were fortunate enough to be in Renaissance Florence in the fifteenth century, nothing could have stopped either of them, apart from physical injury or disease. Fortunately, neither had either. Each continued to develop, to modify and to use his brain, in slightly different ways, depending on the political and social forces surrounding him. 

In terms of heredity, many other prototypical geniuses we have seen in these pages are not dissimilar, in the sense that they had innate gifts. They were born with a “creative nature” into families that were not particularly creative or highly educated. Think of Shakespeare, with his merchant father and his “small Latin and less Greek.” Or Newton, Einstein, Ben Jonson, Ben Franklin, Picasso, or (more humbly) even Lewis Terman. 

Hereditary Factors

A “creative nature” can, however, also run in families. In this instance, we are prompted to conclude that creativity may be due in part to hereditary factors—by which we actually mean genetic influences that are definitely present, even though we do not understand how they are working at the molecular or cellular level in the brain. 

Our largest source of evidence for the heritability of creativity is anecdotal accounts. There are a variety of famous families in which at least two members have made significant creative contributions. I have already mentioned the Darwin/Galton family: grandfather Erasmus Darwin was moderately creative, and Charles Darwin and Francis Galton were highly creative. In Hereditary Genius, Galton himself summarized multiple pedigrees that contain at least two creative people. He divided them into various fields, some of higher creative impact than others: judges, statesmen, poets, painters, scientists, musicians, and others. For comparison he included two types of athletes: oarsmen and wrestlers. Hereditary Genius is not perfect, but it is a highly informative compendium of pedigrees of gifted families. Even today, almost 150 years after publication, it still makes interesting reading. 

The Bach family, for example, is perhaps the most powerful example of creativity running in families. Its creative members extend over eight generations, beginning in 1550 and ending in 1800. The greatest was, of course, Johann Sebastian Bach. But in addition to him, there were more than twenty eminent musicians in the Bach family. Other families summarized in Galton’s Hereditary Genius include the Bellinis and Van Eycks and Titians among the painters, the Coleridges and Wordsworths among poets, and the Brontës among novelists. Galton described many other examples, but these are some of the best known. 

It is not difficult to find gifted families from more recent times that might be included in an updated edition of Hereditary Genius as evidence for the familiality of creativity. For example, Thomas Henry Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) was a notable scientist who had three distinguished grandsons. Grandson Julian was an anthropologist who carried forward his grandfather’s work on the theory of evolution. Andrew was a physiologist who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on nerve impulses and muscle contraction. Aldous was the author of Brave New World (1932) and Point Counter Point (1935) as well as numerous other writings. The brothers William and Henry James are another example. Their father was a nineteenth-century American intellectual who was a close friend of Thoreau and Emerson. William became a distinguished philosopher and psychologist. Henry became an equally famous novelist. 

From a scientific perspective, however, such anecdotal accounts have significant limitations. Families are selected because they provide positive evidence for heritability. But anecdotal accounts do not tell us how often there is no evidence for heritability. 

To my knowledge, my Writers’ Workshop study is the only piece of creativity research that has made an effort to examine heritability using a well-selected sample of creative people and a comparison or control group. In addition to determining the extent to which the writers suffered from mental illnesses, I also examined the extent to which their parents, brothers, sisters, and children had mental illnesses, and the extent to which they were creative. The results are very interesting, and they can be interpreted as providing partial support for a hereditary contribution to both mental illness and creativity. 

Following a classification scheme that had been developed by Swedish-American psychologist Tom McNeil for his studies of the heredity of mental illness and creativity, I divided the writers’ relatives into three groups: not creative, moderately creative (+creative), and highly creative (++creative). I considered them +creative if they pursued occupations that are somewhat creative, such as journalism or teaching music or dance. I considered them ++creative if they had a well-recognized level of creative achievement, such as writing novels, performing as a concert artist or playing in a major symphony, dancing in a major company, or making a major scientific contribution such as an invention. 

The 30 writers had a total of 116 relatives, and the 30 controls a total of 121. Among the writers, 32 relatives (28%) were creative (20 +creative and 12 ++creative). Among the controls, 16 relatives (13%) were creative (11 +creative and 5 ++creative). Statistical tests showed that these differences were significant (not likely to be a chance result). 

The larger number of ++creative relatives among the writers is especially noteworthy. The relatives of writers also had a higher rate of mood disorder than the controls, 18 percent in relatives of writers and only two percent in relatives of controls. So it appears that both mood disorder and creativity were familially transmitted. 

When summarized in a numerical list that shows the patterns of creativity and illness in the writers, controls, and families, the difference between writers and controls is striking. This can be shown in a patterning chart. Only nine of the writers had family backgrounds that had neither creativity nor mental illness, whereas the majority of the controls (18) were free of a hereditary association with either trait. These results suggest that creativity and mood disorder are indeed closely linked in writers and their families. Something seems to be transmitted that may predispose descendants to both characteristics. 

However, a smart reader is going to notice that this study does not show that creativity is hereditary, in the sense that it is directly genetically transmitted. It only shows that it runs in families. It could run in families because of genes, but it is also very possible that it is a learned trait that occurs because of growing up with other family members who are creative. Think about those hundreds of musicians in the Bach family. They were definitely taught to be musical by growing up in a musical family. In fact, the whole Bach extended family would get together every year and have family concerts. Likewise, literary people may teach their children writing skills at an early age and predispose them to become writers. Dads who were successful football or soccer players in high school or college are usually throwing or kicking balls with their children as soon as they are physically able. My study might only be showing an increased rate of creativity in the families of writers because they shared an enriched environment, not because creativity may be inherited through a genetic mechanism. 

Patterning of Mental Illness and Creativity in 30 Writers, 30 Control Subjects, and Their Families


Control subject’s



Writer’s Family 

Control Subject 













Illness Creativity

Disorder Alcoholism

Illness Creativity



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Iowa Writers Workshop Study:
Psychiatric Illness in 30 Writers versus 30 Controls

Writers Controls

N % N % X2P

Bipolar I 4 13 0 0 – ns Bipolar II 9 30 3 10 2.60 ns Unipolar 11 37 5 17 2.13 ns Any Bipolar Disorder 13 43 3 10 6.90 0.01 Any Mood Disorder 24 80 9 30 13.20 0.001 Alcoholism 9 30 2 7 4.01 0.05 Drug Abuse 2 7 2 7–ns

Note: Some people had more than one diagnosis, so the numbers add up to more than 30. The last two columns are statistical tests of how significant the differences are. A P greater than .05 is considered statistically significant.

But some clues in my study hint that the transmission of creativity might be at least partially genetic. Most noteworthy is that the types of creativity that were found in writers’ family members were not necessarily literary. While some were in literary fields, many were creative in other areas, such as art, music, dance, mathematics, or science. This variability in types of creativity argues for a genetic role. If the creativity were a socially learned trait, one would expect that the majority of the creative family members would be writers as well. But they were not. The coexistence of multiple forms of creativity within these families suggests some kind of “general creativity factor” that is genetically transmitted and that predisposes a person to be original and inventive. The individual who gets a goodly dose of this factor can then differentiate into a composer, a violinist, a dancer, a mathematician, or a biologist, depending on physical abilities, encouragement from family or teachers, and a host of other physical or environmental influences.

The coexistence of multiple forms of creativity within these families suggests some kind of “general creativity factor” that is genetically transmitted and that predisposes a person to be original and inventive. 

Having said that, I should make it clear that my study has only a limited ability to inform the nature versus nurture debate. This study, like all studies using a design that examines only familial patterning, cannot definitively disentangle genetic from environmental factors. Only one experimental design can do that, the adopted offspring study. That design cleanly separates genetic from environmental factors by studying children who were adopted away to “normal” or “average” families, but whose biological mothers possess some trait or disease of interest, such as schizophrenia or creativity. Those adopted children can be compared to another group of adopted children who were born to biological mothers who were “normal” or did not possess the trait of interest. If the children adopted from schizophrenic or creative mothers have a higher rate of schizophrenia or creativity than those adopted from normal mothers, then we can say that the transmission of the trait has a significant genetic component. The influence of the environment—being raised by a mother who has schizophrenia or who is creative—has been eliminated. 

This design has never been used to study the hereditary transmission of creativity, and it probably never will be, because it is fiendishly difficult to execute. Interestingly, Tom McNeil did do a variant of it by starting with a group of adopted children who were divided into three groups with different levels of creativity. These were essentially equivalent to my “absent,” “+creative,” and “++creative.” He too was interested in the relationship between creativity and mental illness. Because the study was done in Denmark, where health registries designating diagnoses are maintained in a relatively open and accessible way, he was able to determine the extent to which creativity in these adopted children was associated with higher rates of mental illness in biological parents. What did he find? No big surprise. The more creative the adopted person, the higher the rate of mental illness in the biological parents. Unfortunately, he had no way to find out about creativity in the biological parents. If he had, we would have a clean answer to our question about the degree to which genetic factors directly influence levels of creativity. 

Nature versus Nurture:
What Creates the Creative Brain? 

As with so many of the most interesting questions in science, we have (as yet) no definitive answers. But we can make some reasonable observations that will guide us as we continue to seek answers. 

First, we need to conceptualize “nature” in two different ways. 

“Nature” can be defined as an innate or inborn gift that drives an individual to creative achievement, without any obvious genetic contributions. We do not know yet how this kind of creative nature arises, but it appears to be more common than “nature” that is clearly hereditary. Once this creative nature arises, nurturing it through a variety of environmental factors will further enhance it. If it arises where there is no nurture at all —as might occur during dark times of the Middle Ages or ferocious times and places wracked by civil war or political or religious suppression—the precious innate gifts may be extinguished and fail to produce any great art or science at all. 

“Nature” can also be defined as a predisposition to be creative that appears to be hereditary. Some evidence supports the possibility that a tendency toward creativity may be inherited. But this evidence is not definitive, nor is it likely to become so anytime soon. At present the evidence is primarily anecdotal. We need more well-designed empirical scientific studies of the heritability of genius. 

Second, whatever the importance of “nature,” “nurture” is also important for creativity to flourish, and perhaps essential. The human brain is shaped by the world around it from the time that a child is born to the end of adult life.

Many different forces have an impact on how the brain grows and develops. One of our challenges is to understand those forces more deeply, so that we may eventually use that understanding more wisely. Thus we may give the gifted an opportunity to shine yet more brilliantly. And we may also help the more ordinary build better brains as well.


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Scientific Advisory Board
Joseph T. Coyle, M.D., Harvard Medical School
Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Pierre J. Magistretti, M.D., Ph.D., University of Lausanne Medical School and Hospital
Helen Mayberg, M.D., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai 
Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., The Rockefeller University
Donald Price, M.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Charles Zorumski, M.D., Washington University School of Medicine

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