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Brains of Artists and Mentally Ill Can't Shut Out 'Irrelevant' Info
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WebMD Health News

Oct. 3, 2003 -- People who can't ignore irrelevant information might be suffering from mental illness. Or they might highly creative.

The ability to focus on a task means that a person must screen out the millions of task-irrelevant sensations that constantly stream through the brain. People suffering from psychosis fail to do this. So do highly creative individuals, a new study suggests.

"This means that creative individuals remain in contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment," University of Toronto researcher Jordan B. Peterson, PhD, says in a news release. "The normal person classifies an object, then forgets about it -- even though that object is much more complex and interesting than he or she thinks. The creative person is always open to new possibilities."

Poets and Psychotics

Most of us focus by leaning what to ignore and then ignoring it. This ability is called latent inhibition. It can be measured. That's exactly what Peterson and colleagues did in 86 Harvard undergraduates. These 33 men and 53 women also completed surveys that rated them on actual creative achievement.

The researchers found that creative individuals had less latent inhibition than their less creative peers. And those who were most creative -- the "eminent creative achievers" -- were seven times more likely than others to have low scores on the latent inhibition test. These scores were comparable to those seen in people suffering from psychosis.

The difference seems to be intelligence. Given a high IQ, a trait that makes one person mentally ill may take another person to the heights of creative achievement. The most creative students tended not only to have low latent inhibition, but high IQ as well.

"Scientists have wondered for a long time why [mental illness] and creativity seem linked," Harvard researcher Shelley Carson, PhD, says in a news release. "It appears likely that low levels of latent inhibition and exceptional flexibility in thought might predispose to mental illness under some conditions and to creative accomplishment under others."

The findings appear in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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