About this Author
Gwen Smith Ishmael, Sr. Vice President of Insights and Innovation at Decision Analyst in Arlington, TX, has led marketing and new product development activities in the CPG and technology industries since 1986. She also conceived and developed ground-breaking Web-based promotional vehicles, two of which are patent pending. Gwen holds an MBA in Marketing and is a featured speaker on insights and innovation around the world. Her writings have been featured in international text books, most recently in Managing 4 Ps of Marketing FMCG Sector, and Product Innovation: A Strategic Tool for Growth, by ICFAI Publications, 2006 and 2007, respectively.

Founding Author

Renee Hopkins Callahan Renee Hopkins Callahan started IdeaFlow and serves as chief blog-wrangler. She is Director of Innovation Services at Decision Analyst in Arlington, Texas, is a former journalist who worked as an editor and reporter for The Dallas Morning News and the Nashville Tennessean, and was managing editor of D, the Dallas city magazine. She has a master's degree in rhetoric and has also taught college-level English and informal logic.


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November 10, 2005

Bipolar children more creative than other kids

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Posted by Renee Hopkins Callahan

More evidence of a link between creativity and mental illness: "Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have shown for the first time that a sample of children who either have or are at high risk for bipolar disorder score higher on a creativity index than healthy children."

I've written about this kind of thing before. It fascinates me because my personal experience has been that there's sometimes a fine line between creativity and mood states that most professionals would call disordered. The line can be so fine that it's down to whether the expressions are positive or negative -- if positive, call it creativity; if negative, call it personality disorder. Although there are also positive and negative manifestations of creativity traits.

There has long been a link between bipolar and creativity -- the manic stage of bipolar can result in binges of creativity (positive) instead of binges of shopping or sex (negative, depending on budget and marital status/choice of partner[s]!). This is the first study that has shown a link between creativity and children whose parents are bipolar (who are thus themselves at risk of becoming bipolar, which has a genetic component).

Study co-author Terence Ketter, MD, said he believes "bipolar patients’ creativity stems from their mobilizing energy that results from negative emotion to initiate some sort of solution to their problems. 'In this case, discontent is the mother of invention,' he said."

The researchers also found a link between the length of a bipolar child’s illness and creativity: the longer a child was sick or manic, the lower the creativity score. It makes sense, said Kiki Chang, MD, a study coauthor, that this illness could, over time, erode one’s creativity. 'After awhile you aren’t able to function and you can’t access your creativity,' he explained.

Creativity scores on the study's test instrument, the Barron-Welsh Art Scale, tend to decrease with age even in healthy individuals, so more research is needed, Ketter said.

A couple of years ago I posted on a study that said people whose brains are more open to stimuli from the outside environment will either be:

1. Creative, because their openness to new possibilities and stimuli gives them more, and more various, information with which to make connections and have new ideas, or
2. Psychotic, because their openness to new possibilities and stimuli leads to overload and mental illness.

It's not possible to correlate these two studies scientifically, given the little information I have about each (and the fact that I'm not a scientist). Still, I wonder if some of the same positive/negative correlation might be happening here? And if children who have been bipolar for a longer period of time aren't as creative, perhaps that signals that the longer they live with the condition of being more open to outside stimuli, the more difficult it becomes for them to handle it.

I also wonder if specific training in creativity skills might help bipolar people whose symptoms don't currently manifest themselves as the more positive creative traits. Perhaps if they knew what to do with their innate creativity, these folks would be able to live more on the positive than the negative side of creativity.

Comments (24) | Category: Brain Chemistry & Creativity

March 15, 2004

The Neurobiology of Creativity

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Posted by Renee Hopkins Callahan

I'm going to quote in its entirety a post from Zack Lynch of Corante's Brainwaves blog. Zack's reporting on a talk on the "Neurobiology of Creativity" --

Redwood Neuroscience Institute's Stanford Theoretical Neuroscience Lecture featured William Calvin from the University of Washington.

The general theme of his talk was creativity. "How you do something
you’ve never done exactly that way before, yet get it right the first

His answer: You can have competitions between categories, between
movement programs, between relations, between analogies. That’s what a
Darwin Machine in neocortex could buy you: a general process for
quality creativity at various levels.

Some of the most interesting work on the neurobiology of creativity is
being conducted by Dr. Rosa-Aurora Chavez from the National Institute
of Psychiatry in Mexico City. To determine if there was a genetic
component to creativity, she took blood samples from 100 recognized
artists and scientists. Her findings showed that highly creative
individuals had increased expression of specific serotonin transporter
and dopamine receptor genes.

She then performed functional neuroimaging experiments on a dozen of
these creative minds, concluding that creative individuals had
significantly higher activation in the right and left cerebellum,
frontal and temporal lobes, while they performed creative tasks.

Creativity research has important implications for business innovation
and investment. While standard IQ tests and college entrance exams
focus on convergent thinking, i.e. finding the right answer, creative
individuals excel at divergent thinking, i.e. discovering multiple
potential solutions. The typical behaviors of creative individuals,
such as novelty seeking and harm avoidance, as well as, high emotional,
sensual and physical over-excitability, often result in the abandonment
of projects.

In today’s rushed corporate world focused on quenching the financial
markets thirst for efficiency, there is little room for individuals who
do not predictably meet deadlines. Further research might validate that
sustained financial support of think tanks could produce more
innovations. Imagine if the Medici family had not backed Michelangelo,
a creative genius who is known to have left over half of his sculptures

How many cures for diseases and market opportunities have been missed
as a result of short-circuiting the creative process?

I have two comments on this -- the first is that "increased expression of specific serotonin transporter and dopamine receptor genes" does not always transfer into the same kinds of outward behavior, resulting in behaviors that can be said to be specific to creative individuals. That's why creativity tests rarely rely on psychological profiling of "typical behaviors." Highly creative inividuals can be found across all segments of the Meyers-Briggs and other psychological profiling tools. That's why researchers such as Teresa Amabile recommend the kind of creativity testing that actually requires that the testee produce some output that can be evaluated as creative or not.

A great opportunity for neurobiological research into creativity would be to discover the whole range of ways in which the highly creative people of various personality types express their creativity.

My other comment -- the divergence that's so important in creativity actually has two components -- fluency and originality. Fluency is the ability to come up with lots of potential solutions. Originality is the ability to come up with potential solutions that are substantially different from each other yet are still part of a potential solution set, will still solve the problem. I'd love to see neuroimaging data that could pinpoint the differences in brains that are merely fluent with solutions, vs. brains that are adept at truly original thinking.

Comments (0) | Category: Brain Chemistry & Creativity

February 2, 2004

Weak ties make for stronger innovation

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Posted by Renee Hopkins Callahan

Social networking and innovation is the subject of a Stanford Business School study that says "disparate information and its transmission are keys to innovation." Study author Martin Ruef says weak ties "allow for more experimentation in combining ideas from disparate sources...." His research shows that "entrepreneurs who spend more time with a diverse network of strong and weak ties...are three times more likely to innovate than entrepreneurs stuck within a uniform network."

You may recall I posted before about how creative people have brains that are more open to outside stimuli (and are able to handle it, otherwise they would be creative but driven insane by the stimuli). So I'm not surprised to see this information.

I'm also reminded of a conversation I had with Andrew Hargadon, author of How Breakthroughs Happen. Hargadon calls 'innovation...a phenomenon of networks connected by 'technology brokers' - people or organizations that link isolated groups and industries to integrate previously unrelated viewpoints and technologies to resolve new problems."

It makes sense that innovative, entrepreneurial people would be those who see the value of weak social ties as a means of gathering, evaluating and sorting information about the world. This information, these social connections generate the stuff out of which inventive recombination happens.

Is there a social networking site out there yet that really taps into this? I've done Ryze, been invited to Friendster, been invited to orkut...but I haven't studied any of them all that closely. It would be interesting to see if there are specific features on any of these sites that make it possible for this kind of weak-tie networking, without pushing the social tie into a more explicit strong tie that's not as useful for entrepreneurship and innovation.

Comments (1) | Category: Andrew Hargadon | Brain Chemistry & Creativity | Collaborative Creativity | Innovation, General | Inventive Recombination

January 22, 2004

Sleep 'reboots' the brain for creativity and problem solving, says study

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Posted by Renee Hopkins Callahan

From the article:

The German study is considered to be the first hard evidence supporting the common sense notion that creativity and problem solving appear to be directly linked to adequate sleep, scientists say.

....[Study] results support biochemical studies of the brain that indicate memories are restructured before they are stored. Creativity also appears to be enhanced in the process....[though] the exact process in the sleeping brain for sharpening these abilities remains unclear.

Reaction at our office is split between "well, we all knew that" and "we now have official permission to sleep on the job"!!

Comments (1) | Category: Brain Chemistry & Creativity

October 9, 2003

Better Innovation Through Neuroceuticals

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Posted by Renee Hopkins Callahan

After finding out about this newly discovered link between madness and creativity, I was ready to go have a drink and ponder how close to psychosis I personally might be….maybe just a few IQ points or notches of ability to multi-task and remember! Meanwhile, our ever-steady Corante blog-neighbor Zack Lynch, who’s writing a book on neurotechnology and society, had this to say:

As different aspects of mental health are better understood, more parts of the innovative process will be impacted such as accelerating learning via cogniceuticals to enhancing interpersonal communication with emoticeuticals. As neuroceutical usage spreads across industries it will create a new economic “playing field” wherein individuals who use neuroceuticals will achieve a higher level of productivity than those who don’t.

The resulting competitive gap will be substantial. To put this in historical perspective, imagine the competitive advantage that a team living in the year 2003 with the Internet as their information source has over a group living in 1953 that must rely on the local library.

Disruptive innovation, anyone?! Definitely read the whole thing.

Comments (0) | Category: Brain Chemistry & Creativity | Creativity | Disruptive Innovation

October 8, 2003

Link Found Between Creativity and Madness

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Posted by Renee Hopkins Callahan

Whoa! I was gearing up to write some kind of wisdom about disruptive innovation, when this morning Hylton sent me a link to a FuturePundit post that dropped a bomb in my brain: Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto and colleagues at Harvard University have found that decreased latent inhibition of environmental stimuli appears to correlate with greater creativity among people with high IQ.

In a nutshell, this research says that people whose brains are more open to stimuli from the outside environment will either be:

  1. Creative, because their openness to new possibilities and stimuli gives them more, and more various, information with which to make connections and have new ideas, or
  2. Psychotic, because their openness to new possibilities and stimuli leads to overload and mental illness.

So what is the difference between creativity and madness? According to this study, good working memory and a high IQ make the difference. With those assets/skills/traits (whatever they are!) you have the capacity to think about many things at once, discriminate among ideas and find patterns. Without them, you can’t handle the increased stimuli.

This press release quotes Dr. Peterson: "It appears that we have not only identified one of the biological bases of creativity but have moved towards cracking an age-old mystery: the relationship between genius, madness and the doors of perception."

There’s also a role played by stress, though it only comes out in the paper (and in the FuturePundit post), not in the press release. Release of the stress hormone corticosterone lowers latent inhibition. So stress sends the brain into a state where it will examine factors in the environment that it normally ignores, thus allowing for the discovery of solutions to the stress-causing problem - solutions that would be ignored in normal and less-stressed circumstances.

Is this why we sometimes feel as though we're more creative under deadline stress (although studies have shown we’re not really more creative under those circumstances)?

Then, of course, stress overload causes information overload and then presumably psychosis starts. Or perhaps this is where depression comes from? A natural response to an overload of problem-solving stimuli, causing pattern-recognition and discernment responses to short-circuit?

So what is the effect of Prozac and the other SSRI drugs on this tendency for decreased latent inhibition? Would these medications decrease creativity by increasing latent inhibition, or would they increase creativity by increasing ability (or at least restoring your natural ability) to handle external stimuli?

I realize I have more questions than answers here, and I promise I’ll share answers with you if I find any. Meanwhile, you can see a .PDF of original paper here. The study was also published in the September 2003 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Comments (0) | Category: Brain Chemistry & Creativity | Creativity