Thursday, December 08, 2005

Of Note: Speaking of schizophrenia (and sex and art)

In my last post, I wrote about an interesting story my friend Mike Rosenwald wrote for Esquire, about a scientist who believes that schizophrenia is caused by house cats (you have to read the article to understand that one). Now, a group of scientists has come out with another fascinating explanation for schizophrenia (and it has nothing to do with house cats).

Daniel Nettle, a psychologist at the University of Newcastle, just published a study showing that people with schizophrenic-like personality traits (and therefore genes predisposing them to schizophrenia) are more likely to do two things: Become artists and have more sexual partners. And this, Nettle believes, is why schizophrenia hasn't vanished as a disease.

Evolutionarilly speaking, it's a bit baffling that scizophrenia hasn't been selected out of the gene pool, since scizophrenics don't tend to reproduce (they may be less able to have children physically, and their challenges relating to others can make it difficult to find mates). But scizophrenic genes don't always cause full-blown schizophrenia: People with a family history of schizophrenia can display varying degrees of scizophrenic-like behaviors (magical or mystical thinking, a decreased or distorted perception of self and others, etc), but not actually be scizophrenic themselves. Nettle believes that when a person's genetic tendency toward schizophrenia leads to creative thinking instead of full-blown schizophrenia, it gives them an evolutionary advantage, because they're more likely to become artists, and artists, he says, are more "sexually successful."

In a survey of 425 British adults, researchers found that serious poets and visual artists generally had more sexual partners than those who were either not artistic or only dabbled in the arts. Further analysis showed that one personality dimension -- a tendency toward "unusual" thoughts and perceptions -- was related to both creativity and sexual success. That tendency is also seen in people with schizophrenia. And the findings, according to the study authors, may help explain why schizophrenia -- a mental disorder that often runs in families -- has not been extinguished from the gene pool ...

It's all very interesting, though not entirely convincing yet: This connection between "unusual mental abilities" and scizophrenic tendencies and art and sex is pretty loose. I buy the claims individually -- that "successful creative types" (which he doesn't define) are "sexually successful," and that people with scizophrenic-like tendencies are likely to become artists (some brilliant artists have suffered from scizophrenia, like Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, and many others). But it seems like a big jump to say this might explain the persistance of scizophrenia in the gene pool.

Here's something I find curious: Schizophrenic-like personality traits are the center of much non-scizophrenia-related research these days. I just wrote a story for New York Times Magazine's annual Year in Ideas issue (which hits newsstands on December 11th) about a scientist who's found an explanation for why yawning is contagious. He used these same schizophrenic-like traits to uncover the cause of contagious yawning (stay tuned, I'll post that story when it runs in the magazine in a few days) ...

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Blogger Jim Geezil said...

Wow, interesting article. I don't know if you've heard of an artist named Martin Ramirez (1895-1963). He was an artist who suffered from schizophrenia, his story is fascinating.

9:21 PM  
Anonymous Matt Hutson said...

Okay, now I'm confused. Supposedly:

1.) Having house cats makes you crazy.
2.) Being crazy gets you the girls (if you swing that way.)
3.) Therefore, having house cats gets you girls.

And yet, everyone knows that if a guy wants to attract the ladies, he gets a puppy or a pit bull. Not a cat.

Sheesh! What's a lonely bachelor to do? Thanks a LOT, "science"!

4:57 PM  
Blogger Rebecca Skloot said...

Glad you posted that comment, Matt, because it led me to your blog. Anyone interested in the story I did about celebrety teeth should check out his blog about it -- he points out the very very bizarre new trend in excessively jeweled teeth ... Gold Teeth, move over:

5:27 PM  
Anonymous Pawl said...


I have schizophrenia, I`m a musician and architect. My creativity boosted after my ilness started ( 6 years ago )

And, I get a lot of chicks, too.

Funny, I never thought of that, but in my case, it`s true.

4:35 AM  

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