History suggests that the line between creativity and madness is a fine one, but a small group of people known as schizotypes are able to walk it with few problems and even benefit from it.
A new study confirms that their enhanced creativity may come from using more of the right side of the brain than the rest of us.
In the spectrum between normal and insane, schizotypes generally fall somewhere in the middle. While they do not suffer many of the symptoms affecting schizophrenics, including paranoia, hallucinations and incoherent thoughts, schizotypes often exhibit their own eccentricities.
"They may dress or carry themselves in a strange way," says Bradley Folley, a graduate student in clinical psychology at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and the lead author of the study. "They're not abnormal, they live normal lives but they often have idiosyncratic ways of thinking. Certain things may have special meaning for them or they may be more spiritually attuned."
The link between creativity and psychosis has largely been based on anecdotal evidence and correlation studies. The Vanderbilt study is the first to investigate the creative process experimentally using brain-imaging techniques.
The researchers defined creativity as the ability to generate something new and useful from existing products or ideas.
"Creativity at its base is associative," Folley told LiveScience. "It's taking things that you might see and pass by everyday and using them in a novel way to solve a new problem."
The researchers conducted two experiments to compare the creative thinking processes of schizotypes, schizophrenics and normal control subjects.
In the first experiment, subjects were shown a variety of household objects and asked to come up with new functions for them.
For example, all three groups would be asked to come up with possible uses for a needle and thread. While the normal and schizophrenic controls came up with pretty typical responses like sewing or stitching, one schizotype said that if a person was poor but wanted to get engaged, he could use the thread to make a ring and use the needle to write "I Love You," in the sand.
In the second experiment, the three groups were again asked to come up with creative uses for everyday objects, but this time their brains were monitored using a brain-imaging technique called near-infrared optical spectroscopy.
The scans showed that both sides of the brain in all three groups were active when making novel associations. However, in the brains of schizotypes, the activation of the right hemisphere was much higher compared to brains of the control subjects.
Folley speculates that what may be happening is that schizotypes may either have more access to the right hemisphere than the average population or there may be more efficient communication between the two hemispheres.
The finding is detailed online in the journal Schizophrenia Research.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.