People who are more creative are more likely to experience mental illness.

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The biopharmaceutical company DeCode Genetics was formed in Iceland in 1996 during a period in which a public concern about the privacy and commercialisation of individuals’ health information was emerging. The co-founder of DeCode, Kári Stefánsson, had nevertheless by 2003 developed the company in such a manner that it had convinced over a third of Iceland’s citizens to contribute their biological material to DeCode for sampling and profiling.

A primary reason that this material was collected by DeCode was to map the genetic foundations of virtually any ailment or condition experienced by the Icelandic population. It was anticipated that from the development of the consequent genealogical and biological database, DeCode would be able to determine which demographics within the population might be more susceptible to various conditions, before they experienced them. One such condition within DeCode’s scope, as explored in 2002, was schizophrenia.

Working from the foundations that this research offered, Stefánsson and other scientists more recently studied the genetic factors which elevate the chance that an individual will experience bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Furthermore, and as published in Nature Neuroscience, their study argues that such genetic factors are increasingly identifiable in individuals who are employed in creative professions.

In his evaluation of the study, Stefánsson distinguishes the perception that he believes is generally held of creative personalities. To be a creative person is in Stefánsson’s own words “to be different,” whereby when one is viewed as different, “one tends to be labelled strange, crazy and even insane.”

Stefánsson’s claim here regarding conceptions of difference and creative individuals is really only verifiable via socially scientific research. However, what is deemed to be biologically verifiable in the study in question for Stefánsson is the link between creativity, and the genes responsible for adverse mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. His summation of the study’s results is paraphrased accordingly:

Painters, musicians, writers and dancers were, on average, 25% more likely to carry the gene variants than professions the scientists judged to be less creative, among which were farmers, manual labourers and salespeople (Kari Stefánsson, 2015).

We can note the presence within this terminology of a conventional characterisation of creativity. In order to unpack this characterisation, it is first necessary to examine the preconditions of the study’s focus.

The team of scientists working on this project with Stefánsson are said to have observed the prevalence of the gene variants, which they believe are significantly causal in bipolar and schizophrenic personalities, in members of Iceland’s national arts communities. These results were then compared to, and amalgamated with, the results taken from individuals who had been similarly sampled in the composition of medical databases in the Netherlands and Sweden.

When incorporating the data of all such population groups, the study found that individuals who were interpreted to be creatively inclined – i.e. individuals involved in the above-mentioned artistic fields and communities – were 25% more likely to be carrying “mental disorder gene variants” than individuals outside such fields. Stefánsson’s subsequent commentary, which we have just encountered, interprets that if an individual is genetically predisposed to an adverse mental health condition, there is a greater probability that they will work in a field involving acting, dancing, musicianship, visual artistry, or writing.

All such fields are identified by Stefánsson to be creative. The pivotal parameter in this discussion, therefore, is creativity. If individuals involved in fields defined by Stefánsson as creative are 25% more likely to carry the gene variants responsible for bipolar disorder or schizophrenia than the rest of the population, then creativity and mental ill-health are said to share some kind of relation. Interestingly though, despite this central role that creativity plays in this study, the definition of it does not seem to be particularly rigorously established.

Certain professions are defined by the study as “creative,” whereas other professions are determined to not be. The distinction between such professions is made on the basis of the individuals who work within them. As their paper in Nature Neuroscience explains, creative individuals are characterised as those whose cognitive constitutions impel them to “take novel approaches” in relation to “prevailing modes of thought or expression.” Regarding this particular feature, it is determined that the arts are creative pursuits, given that they are more likely to be populated by individuals who take and inspire novel approaches, whereas jobs involving the “manual labours” are less creatively orientated.

This distinction that is established between kinds of professions is evident in Stefánsson’s commentary. Stefánsson describes creativity exclusively in terms of artistic endeavours, citing a series of artists as examples of creative individuals (“Mozart, Bach, and Van Gogh”). It is not merely the professions that are positioned as creative accordingly. Rather, “the painters, musicians, writers, and dancers” who undertake such professions, are concurrently invested with the status of being creative. The sense that is given is that if an individual enters into one of these more creative professions, they will almost by default be more creative than the members of the population who are not involved in such professions.

With notions of more, and therefore, of less, creativity, come the implications of quantification. What Stefánsson is quantifying, or what his language demands is quantifiable, is creativity. However, in light of the above considerations, we can ask whether Stefánsson justifies this characterisation of creativity.

The reason that this concern is raised is that Stefánsson’s focus seems not to be on creativity directly. Rather, of primary interest to him from the study are the professions that are said to exhibit creativity, as well as the genetic signs that are believed to indicate creativity.

There might be something quantifiable about the professions that are interpreted to occupy and employ creative individuals. Similarly, there seems to be something measurable about the biological and neurological traces of those who work in such professions. However, these dual perspectives do not quantify creativity directly. They do not explain how we can evaluate Stefánsson’s claim of there being more creative individuals. Rather, such perspectives measure the manifestations or the expressions of creativity, whilst the source of such expressions remains unaddressed.

If creativity is quantifiable, as Stefánsson’s identification of “more creative” individuals and professions suggests, then there must be measurable units of creativity which comprise its quantification. These units, in being counted, aggregated, and compared, condition there being a quantity of the thing or the experience in question. Measurable units of quantified creativity are not, however, identified by Stefánsson.

How, then, might we consider whether Stefánsson could possibly identify measurable units of creativity?

Can creativity be quantified?

Henri Bergson posits that the tendency to quantify things or experiences derives from social influence. This is because such quantification occurs through the measures and representations that have been installed by the institutions, perspectives, and languages, of human, collective existence. The sciences, and the social sciences, exemplify this quantifying tendency, in symbolising the world via calculable, comparable data. The integration of the sciences and the social sciences could therefore be helpful in determinations of Stéfansson’s possible identification of measurable units of creativity.

What must also be taken into consideration, though, is Bergson’s complementary concern that from this tendency are said to emerge quantifiable constructions of features of the world and our experience of it that might not really be quantifiable. This speaks to the tension between (i) what is perceived to be the socially constructed quantification of a thing/experience, versus (ii) what is presumed to be the real-natural state of a thing/experience.

In terms of creativity, we can review four positions which operate from within this tension. This will allow us to appraise how Stéfansson might identify the units which comprise a creativity that Stéfansson assumes is quantifiable, and the responses that Stéfansson would face. Click on each position below to expand/contract its supporting argument:

1. Extreme social constructionist. The social construction of creativity misrepresents what is real-natural about creativity.

i. Stéfansson engages studies of creativity to evidence the measurable units of creativity.

ii. [Science study “y”] studies the physiological changes that are experienced when creativity is reported to be experienced…or…[Social science study “z”] studies the behaviours that a society has defined as indicating creativity.

iii. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of these physiological changes or behavioural patterns that comprise creativity?

If no…

iv. Stéfansson does not identify measurable units of quantified creativity.

If yes…

v. Stéfansson identifies measurable units of quantified creativity.

The extreme social constructionist responds…

vi. The sciences are socially constructed institutions/perspectives.

vii. Socially constructed perspectives misrepresent what is real-natural about the world.

viii. [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a socially constructed perspective of creativity.

ix. Even if measurable units of quantified creativity are posited by [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”], such units misrepresent what is real-natural about creativity.

x. The creativity that Stéfansson quantifies misrepresents what is real-natural about creativity.

This position is that scientific experimentation, techniques, perspectives, and theories, could have been developed in myriad ways, depending on relevant social influences. Consequently, the resulting scientific results must be dependent upon how society has shaped them. This contingently social factor in the production of scientific truths is contrasted from what are posited to be the necessarily timeless truths or realities of the world. By looking at creativity through a contingently socially constructed lens (the sciences are interpreted to be such lenses), the extreme social constructionist’s position demands that the measurable units that might be posited scientifically regarding creativity, never represent creativity as it really, naturally is.

2. Exclusive social constructionist. The social construction of creativity is all that creativity ever is.

i. – vi. as per position 1.

The exclusive social constructionist responds…

vii. creativity is also a social construction.

viii. If creativity is a social construction, and the sciences are social constructions, the scientific study of creativity measures the only reality of creativity.

ix. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of this creativity?

If no…

x. Stéfansson does not identify measurable units of quantified creativity.

If yes…

xi. Stéfansson identifies measurable units of quantified creativity.

This position is that creativity is a concept that societies have created. Societies define the criteria for what comprises creativity accordingly. These criteria, either physiological, behavioural, or both, are the signs of creativity. If a society conceives of creativity by such signs, and creativity is considered to be nothing but its social conceptualisation, then the measurement of these signs is duly interpreted to measure creativity’s reality.

This differs from the extreme social constructionist position that is presented above in one key regard; the exclusive social constructionist avoids the supposition of a separate natural reality of creativity that the social construction of it must explain, access, or discover. Rather, for the exclusive social constructionist, creativity is a concept that is believed to only ever have a social reality.

This latter point presents the greatest issue with this position. Will it be adequate for Stéfansson (or indeed for anyone), to state that creativity is only a contingent, social construction, with no other reality? If Stéfansson wishes to argue that creativity has a reality beyond how a society has come to conceive of it, Stéfansson then needs to tackle the contestation in position 1 from the extreme social constructionist.

3. Real-natural social constructionist. The social construction of creativity is a part of what is real-natural about creativity.

i. – vi. as per position 1.

vii. What is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural.

viii. If what is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural, [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a part of what is real-natural.

ix. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of creativity.

If no…

x. Stéfansson does not identify measurable units of quantified creativity.

If yes…

xi. Stéfansson identifies measurable units of quantified creativity.

This position is that what is real-natural expresses itself in social ways. Society, which is a part of what is real-natural, declares through its languages and customs (including its scientific studies), that this feature (creativity) of what is real-natural is quantifiable. The social construction of creativity in quantifiable terms is a part of what is real-natural about creativity. This interpretation resolves the problem of a real-natural world that social perspectives only misrepresent, as found in the extreme social constructionist’s position.

If what is social is real-natural, and vice-versa, then not only is the social construction of creativity a part of what is real-natural, but also, what is real-natural about creativity is a social reality. If the real-natural, as society, is said to conceive of creativity quantifiably, and to identify creativity’s measurable units, then what is real-natural about creativity is that it is quantified via measurable units.

Not incidentally, this position intersects most coherently with what might be referred to as the “realist” position. The realist would posit that our scientific impressions of what is real-natural do accurately represent what is real-natural. This point must be qualified with the observation that the realist might baulk at the definition of scientific production merely as a contingent, socially constructed, institution. Given that Counting sheep is occupied with Bergsonian-inspired concerns regarding the tendency to socially (mis)construct all features of the world quantifiably, this realist position, in avoiding themes of social constructionism, is not included in these considerations.

4. Incorrect real-natural social constructionist. The social construction of creativity is a part of what is real-natural about creativity, but is incorrect about creativity.

i. – vi. as per position 1.

vii. What is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural.

viii. If what is socially constructed is a part of what is real-natural, [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a part of what is real-natural.

ix. Does [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] identify measurable units of creativity.

If no…

x. Stéfansson does not identify measurable units of quantified creativity.

If yes…

xi. Stéfansson identifies measurable units of quantified creativity.

The incorrect real-natural social constructionist responds…

v. [Science study “y”] or [Social science study “z”] is a part of what is real-natural and is incorrect that creativity is quantifiable.

vi. Stéfansson does not identify measurable units of quantified creativity.

Alternatively, the interpretation might be that what is real-natural, socially posits that creativity is quantifiable when actually it is not. The curiosity in this position is that what is real-natural is presenting as a social form of the real-natural, which in perceiving a feature (creativity) of what is real-natural, is incorrect about that feature (creativity) of what is real-natural.

What is forwarded in this position is not that incorrect socially constructed quantifications of creativity represent a mutual exclusion between (i) the social, scientific, perspective/construction of creativity, and (ii) what is real-natural about creativity. Instead, as per position 3, both the social construction of creativity, and what is real-natural about creativity, are simultaneously social and real-natural. Whilst units of measurement do not exist for this feature (creativity) of what is real-natural, what is socially constructed is not said to be excluded from what is real-natural when conceiving of creativity incorrectly (quantifiably).

Rather, what is being forwarded in this position is that what is real-natural comprises all possiblesocial perspectives/constructions of this feature (creativity) of what is real-natural. Every social perspective/construction, according to this position, comes from nowhere but from what is real-natural, after all. One of these perspectives/constructions is that which posits that creativity is quantifiable, even when there are actually no measurable units comprising such quantification, and therefore no quantification of creativity whatsoever.

A reason that such units of measurement do not exist, and that the quantification of creativity is incorrect, could relate to the way in which creativity manifests. Stéfansson perceives a difference in the degree or size of the creativity that manifests. However, for this position it could be stated that creativity emerges environmentally, structurally, and circumstantially. With each set of different circumstances comes a different kind, rather than a different magnitude, of creativity.

If the kind of creativity that manifests is contingent upon the environment in which it manifests, there can be no standardised units across differently manifested creativities. This problematises the possible quantification of, and comparison between, an individual’s manifestations of creativity over time. Similarly it contests the possibility of comparing the creativity between different individuals. Each instantiation of creativity is instead qualitatively incomparable, if it is deemed to manifest circumstantially.

For Stefánsson, an adherence to this position would require relinquishing the belief in the existence of more, or less, creative professions and individuals. Instead, his position would need to recognise that whilst individuals involved in certain professions are more likely to be genetically predisposed to mental health conditions, this is not because they were more creative individuals and professions.

 



Categories: Art

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