” So should we believe that creative genius is connected with madness or not? Modern empirical research suggests that we should because it has pinpointed the connection between madness and creativity clearly. The most important process underlying strokes of creative genius is cognitive disinhibition—the tendency to pay attention to things that normally should be ignored or filtered out by attention because they appear irrelevant.
When Alexander Fleming noticed that a blue mold was killing off the bacteria culture in his petri dish, he could have just tossed the latter into the autoclave like any of his colleagues might have done. Instead, Fleming won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of penicillin, the antibacterial agent derived from the mold Penicillium notatum. Many people have gone for a walk in the woods and returned with annoying burrs attached to their clothing, but only George de Mestral decided to investigate further with a microscope, and thereby discover the basis for Velcro.
But cognitive disinhibition has a dark side: It is positively associated with psychopathology. For example, schizophrenics find themselves bombarded with hallucinations and delusions that they would be much better off filtering out. So why don’t the two groups become the same group? According to Harvard University psychologist Shelly Carson, the creative geniuses enjoy the asset of superior general intelligence. This intelligence introduces the necessary cognitive control that enables the person to separate the wheat from the chaff. Bizarre fantasies are divorced from realistic possibilities.
According to this conception, high intelligence is essential to creative genius, but only insofar as it collaborates with cognitive disinhibition. Exceptional intelligence alone yields useful but unoriginal and unsurprising ideas. Marilyn vos Savant made it into the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s highest recorded IQ, and yet has not managed to find a cure for cancer or even build a better mousetrap.
Some domains of creativity put far more emphasis on usefulness than on originality and surprise. In such cases, the vulnerability shared between genius and madness becomes much less critical. For example, psychopathology can be negatively correlated with creative genius in the hard sciences. The interesting exception are the scientific revolutionaries who go against the prevailing paradigms. For them, the relation is almost as positive as found for artists and writers.”