The Origins and Mechanism of Creativity and the Nature of the Association between Major Mental Disorders (MMDs) and Geniuses — A Novel Approach

“Πολλα τα δεινα, ανθρωπου ουδεν δεινοτερον.”
(Gk,“There are many awe-inspiring wonders, none greater than a human being.”  Chorus in Antigone by Sophocles) 


There exists an association between creativity and Major Mental Disorders (MMDs) known since antiquity. The ancient Greeks considered both as “having been touched by the gods.”Aristoteles with perspicacity he stated ” There is no genius without having a touch of madness”  This phenomenon has been verified repeatedly in studies in the past.  A few from our modern era are cited in references 1, 2, 3, and 4.

We are not aware of any previous attempts to clarify the fundamental nature of the association.  Does one phenomenon cause the other, or do they both share a common underlying factor or mechanism?  Furthermore, what is the fructifying modus operandi of the “creative fits” of geniuses?  In this paper, we will address both questions.

First, we propose that both creativity and MMDs share a common pool made up of individuals with an extreme temperamental variant.  If also endowed with certain other qualities such as high intelligence, tenacity, curiosity, and energy, as well living in a nurturing and facilitating zeitgeist, such people may become creative geniuses.  Nevertheless, the fact that they share extreme temperament with other similar individuals who do not have the additional beneficial qualities just mentioned, places candidate geniuses in a pool of at-risk people who probabilistically may also develop major mental disorders (5).  Recent advances in empirical understanding of evolutionary mechanisms in the development of human nature (5, 6, 7) provide important clues to the unique origin and mechanism of the brain function of true creative geniuses.

The Role of Temperament

A few cogent remarks regarding temperament are warranted.  Temperament is defined as the particular inborn ensemble of behavioral propensities in each individual.  Ultimately it represents the fundamental functional response structure of the brain – the “firmware” in current computer parlance.  It acts not only as an unfinished scaffold upon which the overall personality of the individual will be formed, but also guides the adopted significance of environmental influences that are eventually embedded in the scaffold.  Both constitute, along with learned attitudes and cultural ethos, the final personality of the individual.

Temperamental components — controversially as the field is evolving — appear to originate from two origins forming separate clusters. The first cluster originates from the evolutionary pressures on the individual, such as selfishness, inner directness, aloofness and self-serving calculations.  The second cluster originates from evolutionary pressures on the social aspects of human experience, such as sociability, connectedness, empathy, altruism, mutuality, cooperation, and loyalty to one’s tribe (i.e.tribalism).  “Chimera-like,” these two un-amalgamated clusters make up our human nature (6,7). 

From an evolutionary standpoint, the normally occurring small temperamental variability of traits confers flexibility and resilience for survival of the tribe as a whole, irrespective of advantages or disadvantages to individuals. Importantly, the mix of temperamental components is often not evenly distributed, but appears as sub-clusters originating mainly from one or the other part of our human nature.  This results in the often-lopsided occurrence of temperamental types such as the readily observable “extroverts ” and “introverts.”

There exists a major variation from the norm of inborn temperaments that seems to be present in many, and perhaps all, creative geniuses.  This variant lies beyond the normally occurring variability.  When identified as a major mental disorder, it was termed “narcissistic neurosis” by  Freud (8).  The same extreme variant is shared by other non-genius individuals who are vulnerable for development of MMDs.  When and if a MMD does develop, the individual’s pre-existing lopsided traits are now called “pre-morbid personality”(5).

Clinical empirical evidence supports causation mainly originating from evolutionary pressures on individuals.  All may develop MMDs — specifically schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder — that often clinically overlap or switch from one kind to another during each relapse.  In addition, recent clinical evidence (9) and genetic studies (10) point to a common neurodevelopment-al origin for all three MMDs.

Such individuals are to various degrees less social, more self-centered and aloof, even though they may exhibit a “learned” affability and civility.  They are to various degrees inner-directed, deficient in empathy, and connectedness.  They tend to “think” the world rather than “feel” it.  Persons with this lopsided temperament behave oddly and are often perceived as fickle, idiosyncratic, peculiar, or strange.  They tend to feel alone, often dysphoric, and tend to feel an “inner void,” readily acknowledged if asked. They exhibit a kind of “Robinson Crusoe” isolation of the spirit,” so to speak.  They are also racked by doubts and mood oscillations. Frequently, they are captives of compulsive rituals.

Proposed Mechanisms

A great portion of our brain’s function is normally allocated for social intercourse the myriads of kinds of “give and take” in social interactions.  As we are social creatures, our phenomenal evolutionary success as a species — the so-called “eusociality”– depended on this allocation (6).  This dedicated-to-social-functioning component of our brain fosters the development of empathy, altruism, and cooperation.  It enables us to discern the intentions and feelings of others, rank ourselves and others, contribute and be contributed to, and helps develop a sense of belonging and loyalty to the tribe (i.e.tribalism).

All of these factors form one part of our nature, originating from the evolutionary pressures of the social aspects of human experience (6,7).  We now propose that the absence or deficiency in various degrees of the above mentioned social algorithms in brain function for these temperamentally lopsided individuals frees enormous mental power previously dedicated to these functions.  It now becomes available for creative processes augmented and facilitated by the presence of tenacity, persistence of effort, high intellect, curiosity, enthusiasm, and energy.

When these conditions are in place, they enable such individuals to think in alternatives, conciliate, and in synthesis discern patterns and novel solutions to seemingly intractable problems.  They sometimes create works of art such as stirring paintings and melodies emotionally mobilize us with“narratives of the human predicament.”

 Furthermore, they allow geniuses to develop new and applicable paradigms of nature’s workings, even bypassing our evolutionary limits of comprehension.!  They do that by using invented mathematical methods to access the physical arrangements of nature, thereby arriving at utilizable but often incomprehensible conclusions as in quantum mechanics, which vexed even Einstein.

Some of these individuals, although often pleasantly exhibiting a learned civility, are nevertheless to various degrees deficient in important algorithms that help us as social animals to perceive and comprehend their own emotional gestalt, state of mind, and intentions.  As fellow humans they have difficulty discerning how to act and respond accordingly.

This particular lopsided, deficient-in-social-algorithms temperamental variant may be related in a way that is not yet fully understood to the autistic spectrum. Extreme examples range upward to idiots-savants who can recite the list of an entire telephone book.  In addition, sudden heightened creative skills for brain-injured individuals have been reported in the literature.  In my own practice, for example, in a composite fictitious narrative the husband of one of  patients suffered a left frontal lobe brain injury by a gunshot wound.  He was a 25-year old policeman, previously naive in the arts and moderately educated.  Following his recovery, although exhibiting somewhat reduced cognitive alacrity and some social cluelessness, he suddenly became an accomplished oil portrait painter!  Three of his portraits of  are of remarkable quality. 

If these individuals — and this is a big if — are also endowed with high intelligence, tenacity, curiosity, persistence of effort, energy, and enthusiasm, they can become creative geniuses.  Some also tend to exhibit exuberant confidence as national leaders and religious figures. The latter also often posess guile and charm defined as “charisma.”  So they now can transform nations or create religious movements by recruiting group phenomena of a social nature such as yearnings for certainty in a world of uncertainty and ambiguity, or even unquestioning submissiveness to their dogmatic dictates.  In literature, poetry, or music, creative individuals are prone to be cyclothymic while scientists and engineers predominantly tend to be schizoid (1,2,3).

Unfortunately, creative geniuses are quite vulnerable to developing major mental disorders (5). There are many examples of this phenomenon throughout history, as mentioned in their biographies.  Charles Darwin was aloof, obsessive-compulsive and a “hypochondriac,” and his co-discoverer and fellow genius, Alfred Wallace, was also aloof and a “lonely wanderer”as expressed in his remarkable “The Malay Archipelago” (11).  often mentally compromised genius Nikola Tesla, and youthful Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who suffered from mood-swings.  Beethoven was periodically very depressed. Tolstoy was a strange, other worldly, idiosyncratic aristocrat.

And let’s not forget the super-geniuses.  Isaac Newton was periodically outright psychotic.  Albert Einstein was an aloof man who mistreated both his first wife Mileva and his cousin who became his second wife Elsa.  Early in his life, he gave away sight-unseen his illegitimate daughter by Mileva.  But he often displayed social affability and charm (12). Then there was Steve Jobs, a very intense, compulsive genius who esibited cyclothymia (13). He was able to recruit the creative powers of others and literally transform the future in the realm of technology; and yet, under oath, he swore impotence and sterility to avoid obligations to his illegitimate daughter. The mathematician Kurt Goedel died of starvation, fearing poisoning when his wife who tested his food became unavailable to do so!  The list is long indeed.

As for national leaders, there are Winston Churchill with his periodic dark moods, Theodore Roosevelt with mood oscillations, the often melancholy and other worldly Abraham Lincoln, and Alexander the Great who was often seized by demonic fits – paraphora (Gk.being besides oneself). 


(1) Creative individuals share a similar lopsided temperament with other non-creative individuals, making both vulnerable to the development of MMDs.

(2) Their temperamental components originate from evolutionary pressures on the individual, albeit extreme variants.

(3) As a result, these individuals are deficient to varying degrees in the social algorithms that catalyze give and take with their society, thus leaving them isolated in their uniqueness.

(4) Paradoxically, this deficiency releases enormous brain functional power and enables these individuals to excel in some, or all, creative activities.

(5) Provided that these creative individuals are also endowed with high intelligence, curiosity, persistence of effort, tenacity and energy or enthusiasm, they often become geniuses.

(6) In addition, they can capitalize on their talents and advance themselves remarkably in nurturing social circumstances.

These propositions fit and explain many readily observable phenomena and provide promising directions for future studies in molecular genetics and evolutionary biology.  Much work remains to be done with regard to discovering the origin of temperament, temperamental variability, and the occurrence of temperamental types.  It is most important to identify temperamental clusters conferring propensities and vulnerabilities for geniuses and candidates for future development of Major mental Disorders.


1. Hare, E., Creativity and mental illness. Br Med J (Clin Res Ed). Dec 19, 1987; 295(6613): 1587–1589.

2. Andreessen, NC, Creativity and mental illness: prevalence rates in writers and their first-degree relatives. Am J Psychiatry. 1987 Oct;144(10):1288-92.

3. Jamison,K. R., Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. Free Press, 1996.

4. Lombroso, Cesare, The Man Of Genius. Kessinger Publishing, 2010.

5. Pediaditakis, Nicholas, “Origins and Mechanisms in the Development of Major Mental Disorders: A Clinical Approach,” Journal of Behavioral and Brain Science, Vol. 2 No. 2, 2012, pp. 269-275.

6. Wilson, E.O., The Social Conquest of Earth.  Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York, 2012.

7. Nowak, MA, Tarnita, CE,  Wilson, EO, “The evolution of eusociality.” Nature 466 (7310), 2010: 1057-1062. 

8. Freud, Sigmund, Ed., Strachey, J., New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Norton, NY, NY, 1965.

9. Pediaditakis,N., “Shared Characteristics in the Clinical Expression and Pharmacological Responses of Mental Disorders and their Possible Collective Significance.”1998 Medical Hypotheses, 50, 347-352.

10. Identification of risk loci with shared effects on five major psychiatric disorders: a genome-wide analysis. The Lancet, Volume 381, Issue 9875, Pages 1371-1379, 20 April 2013.

11. Desmond, Adrian and Moore, James, Darwin.  Penguin Books, 1991.

12. Isaacson, Walter. Einstein: His Life and Universe, Simon and Schuster, 2007.

13. Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs, Simon & Schuster, 2011.



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