creativity; self-control; event reports

In search of the troubled genius

The largest investigation of its kind has provided compelling new evidence about the links between creativity and mental disorder (Journal of Psychiatric Research: The stereotype of the troubled creative genius remains strong in the popular imagination, based in part on biographies of prominent individuals, past and present, with known mental health problems. There have been some relevant studies too, most notably Nancy Andreasen’s seminal work based on interviews with 30 writers in the 1980s, which revealed they had higher rates of affective disorder than controls (

For this massive new study, Simon Kyaga at the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden and his colleagues took advantage of the comprehensive population records kept in their country. This allowed them to compare the occupation of overa million mental health patients over a 40-year period, as well as the occupational profile of their relatives, against the occupational profiles of millions of healthy controls.

Overall, people in creative professions, such as musicians, artists and scientists, were no more likely to have a mental health diagnosis than people in non-creative professions, such as accountants, with one exception – bipolar disorder. Meanwhile, the first degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and possibly autism, were more likely than healthy controls to be in creative professions. These relatives share 50 per cent of their genes on average with the patients and often exhibit milder, ‘subclinical’ signs of mental disorder. Kyaga told us this result was consistent with an inverted-U model, ‘where increases in psychopathology to a certain extent leads to increased creativity, while further increases reduce creativity’.

In contrast with creative professions as a whole, focusing only on authors revealed a far stronger link with mental illness. Authors, compared with controls, were more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, drug abuse, and to take their own lives. Rates of suicide were also higher among authors without a mental illness.  

An obvious shortcoming of the research is the reliance on people’s professions as a proxy for creativity. As the researchers point out, it’s possible that some people with mental health problems turn to creative work, not because they are exceptionally creative, but perhaps as a coping mechanism. This might be especially the case for authors, who are able to work outside of the constraints associated with many more conventional roles.

‘I do not think that the disorder in itself is beneficial for creativity, but rather that something (personality traits, genes, etc.) makes some individuals predisposed to both creative behaviour and to an increased likelihood of suffering from psychiatric disorder,’ Kyaga said. ‘The disorder in itself is the destructive consequence of this predisposition.’ Kyaga added that more research was needed on the mechanisms – biological and/or psychological – that underlie any putative links between psychopathology and creativity – something he and his colleagues are planning for the future.
- Christian Jarrett


Rough justice for brain-Injured offenders? 

A new psychologist-led report commissioned by the Barrow Cadbury Trust has highlighted the high prevalence of brain injury among young offenders. In Repairing Shattered Lives: Brain Injury and Its Implications for Criminal Justice (, chartered psychologist Professor Huw Williams, chair of the Society’s Division of Neuropsychology, cites evidence that 60 per cent of young offenders in England report having suffered a brain injury (three to six times the rate in the general population). He calls for far greater awareness throughout the criminal justice system about the implications of acquired brain injury. Other findings mentioned by Williams include the fact that children who suffer brain injuries prior to age 12 may be at particularly increased risk for offending behaviour; and that rates of brain injury may be even higher among female prisoners than among male prisoners.

Professor Williams is also co-author of a report published recently by the Children’s Commissioner in England: Nobody Made the Connection: The Prevalence of Neurodisability in Young People Who Offend ( ‘Magistrates, judges, and prosecutors should be trained and supported to understand the ways in which neurodisability might affect capacity to engage in the legal processes in court, and the appropriateness of particular sentences and interventions,’ the report advises. Other chartered psychologists involved in both reports include Simone Fox (University of Oxford) and Susan Young (IoP). cj

Fair to mediums?

Two mediums have failed a test of their abilities held on Halloween at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. Psychic claims have been put to the test for decades, but what made this challenge unusual is that the professional mediums, Patricia Putt and Kim Whitton, agreed with researchers in advance that the conditions were fair.

The mediums conducted readings in silence with five ‘sitters’, each located in a hidden position behind a screen. Afterwards, the sitters were presented with the five written readings and they had to identify which pertained to them. If four or five of the sitters had identified their readings, this would have been scientifically meaningful, the researchers said, whereas anything less than three correct would have been no better than expected based on chance. In the event, no more than one each of the mediums’ readings was correctly identified.
The challenge was organised by Society Fellow Professor Chris French (Goldsmiths, University of London), along with the Merseyside Skeptics Society. That Society’s vice-president Michael Marhall said: ‘I’d urge anyone who is thinking of visiting a medium or attending a psychic stage show to think twice.’ cj

Marshmallow challenge

One of the most famous experiments in child psychology is Walter Mischel’s marshmallow challenge. First conducted in the 1960s, Mischel found that the majority of young children were unable to resist a single marshmallow now for the promise of two later. After an average of about six minutes, most kids succumbed to temptation. The conventional interpretation is that this demonstrates the lack of self-control in young children. But now a new study has come along that claims the story is a little more complicated. Yes, it’s about self-control, but it’s also about children’s expectations regarding the reliability of the promise (Cognition:

Celeste Kidd and her colleagues at the University of Rochester first had 28 children (average age four years, six months) take part in an art project. Twice during this project they were confronted with choices – whether to use old crayons now or wait for a shiny new set promised by the researcher, and whether to use a single sticker now or wait for a bigger, better set promised by the researcher. For half the kids, the researcher always kept his or her promise and brought the new crayons and stickers. For the other kids, in the ‘unreliable condition’, the new crayons and stickers never materialised.

Next came the repeat of the classic marshmallow challenge and the significant finding is that kids in the reliable condition waited on average four times as long before succumbing to temptation, as compared with kids in the unreliable condition (12 minutes vs. 3 minutes; stated differently, only 1 out of 14 children in the unreliable condition waited the full 15 minutes for the extra marshmallows to arrive, versus 9 out of 14 children in the reliable condition). In explaining children’s decision making in the marshmallow test, ‘the influence of a child’s beliefs about the reliability of the world is at least as comparable to their capacity for self-control,’ Kidd and her team concluded.

The new results also have implications for how previous longitudinal research is interpreted. Children who succumb to temptation earlier in the marshmallow task tend to have poorer outcomes later in life, in terms of education and addiction problems. The researchers said their work suggests this could be as much about the long-term effects of having ‘an unreliable world view’ as it is about a lack of self-control. cj

Women in science
A new Wikipedia entry for the University College London neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire was one of the outcomes of a Royal Society edit-a-thon designed to raise the profile of women in science. The event was championed by BPS Fellow, Professor Uta Frith DBE with articles in the Daily Telegraph and the Huffington Post (

Book shortlisted
Chartered Psychologist Peter Storr has been shortlisted in the Chartered Management Institute and British Library Management Book of the Year awards. The Psychological Manager has been shortlisted in the New Manager section, for entries that will ‘best support and develop an individual, new to  the challenges of management, in their first three years in a management, team leadership or supervisory position’. Storr says: ‘The book is essentially about how an understanding of psychology theory and research can help managers have better conversation.’

Eating disorders
The latest data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show that hospital admissions for eating disorders have risen
by 16 per cent in England during 2012, as compared with last year’s figures. Women made up 91 per cent of admissions. Meanwhile, a new analysis of NHS data by SSentif Intelligence showed that the number of people with depression in England has risen by 11.5 per cent in three years (a rise of nearly half a million people).

John maddox prize
The inaugural John Maddox Prize for promoting sound science in the face of difficulty or hostility has been awarded to the psychiatrist Simon Wesseley, Professor of Psychological Medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, for his work on ME/CFS and Gulf War Syndrome. The freelance science journalist Fang Shi-min shared the award.

A report into perceptions of self-harm published by the Young Minds charity and the Cello group found that almost half of surveyed GPs said they didn’t understand self-harm, and 8 in 10 felt they didn’t have adequate training for helping self-harmers. Most teachers also said they didn’t know what to say to people who self-harm. Get the pdf:

Are we wired for science?
Christian Jarrett reports from a seminar on applying neuroscience to the curriculum

The Learning Skills Foundation teamed up with the Centre for Educational Neuroscience in October, hosting a seminar and panel discussion on the question: ‘Applying neuroscience to the mainstream curriculum: Are we wired for science?’.

Denis Mareschal of Birkbeck College began the evening by presenting the results from a series of brain-imaging studies on the neural correlates of scientific reasoning. The main message, he said, is that these studies together reveal a ‘fractionated system’ rather than a specific locus of activity.

One study looked at the patterns of activity associated with deductive reasoning. Participants were presented with a series of logical statements, such as ‘Snow doesn’t melt when it is hot. It is hot. The snow melted,’ and their task was indicate whether the conclusion followed from the premises.

In this case, the conclusion was consistent with general knowledge, but inconsistent with the premises presented, resulting in greater lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC) activity, compared with when the conclusion was consistent with both prior knowledge and the premises. This LPFC activity – Mareschal called it the ‘caped crusader’ – is thought to reflect the suppression of prior knowledge.

A second study was on causal inference. When a causal connection presented to participants was implausible (based on their general knowledge), again there was extra activity in LPFC, reflecting the suppressionof prior knowledge. There was also extra activity in the anterior cingulate, which is involved in conflict monitoring (some have dubbed it part of the ‘oh shit circuit’). On the other hand, plausible causal arguments triggered extra parahippocampal activity – probably associated with the accessing of prior knowledge.

The final study Mareschal told us about involved participants comparing analogical statements. This led to increased frontopolar activity, probably involved in coordinating information. When the semantic distance was great (e.g. ‘kitten is to cat’ as ‘spark is to fire’) compared with when it was closer (e.g. ‘kitten is to cat’ as ‘puppy is to dog’), there was that extra LPFC activity again. This same pattern was observed in children, but often too late, so that they rejected the appropriateness of an analogy when they shouldn’t have done.

What use do these findings have for teaching science? Mareschal reflected on the fact that the DLPFC is late maturing, still not being fully functional at age 13 or 14. We’re not ‘wired for science’ so much as ‘wired for discovery,’ Mareschal said, and it’s up to science teaching to harness this. The brain research showed that different systems were activated when evidence was consistent versus inconsistent with prior knowledge, and he emphasised that this means children need prior knowledge ‘to get causal reasoning off the ground’. Mareschal also recommended encouraging pupils to reflect on whether what they are learning is consistent with their prior beliefs.

These ideas chimed with the findings and arguments presented by the next speaker, Andy Tolmie who’s based at the Institute of Education. Tolmie said that we’ve made great strides in our understanding of reading and maths ability (e.g. the component skills, the predictors of outcomes, remediation and teacher awareness), but in contrast, there is ‘a curious lack of’ research on science learning. ‘But we don’t know nothing,’ he said, and a key insight has been the discovery that naive concepts (e.g. the erroneous idea that heavier things fall faster) are particularly resistant to formal instruction.

By contrast, research has shown that collaborative learning – following a predict–test–explain approach – is very effective at overcoming naive concepts. Why? Tolmie said there’s evidence supporting three explanations – the group work helps pupils learn the process of scientific reasoning; it allows them to merge their understanding; and it exposes them to conflicts between evidence and prior beliefs.

For the rest of his talk, Tolmie focused on the distinction between two ways of thinking – what he called tacit understanding (for example, the ability to perceive causal links that emerges in infancy) and explicit knowledge, including the ability to explain the associations that have been perceived tacitly. By 24 months, Tolmie said that children are able to weigh up statistical evidence of causal relations, and by 47 months they can deliberately manipulate causal relations (Google ‘Blicket Detector Task’ for the relevant research). And yet they continue to confuse conclusions from the effects they observe with conclusions based on prior beliefs (as do adults in fact).

Where do these early, explicit understandings come from? Tolmie said
a lot of it comes from conversations, and young children’s naive understanding of concepts can often be predicted by how often and how accurately things are discussed with parents and peers (for instance, concepts around heating and cooling are discussed far more often than concepts around floating and sinking).

With regard to science teaching, Tolmie said a crucial issue is how tacit understanding meets with explicit, verbal description. Teachers have a crucial role to play in organising effective group work, he said, and knowing when to introduce information and concepts at the right time. Nurturing pupils’ observational and dialogue-based skills is vital, but so too is appreciating that there’s the possibility of a negative impact if scientific thinking is introduced at too early an age.

In the panel discussion, Professor Shirley Simon (Institute of Education), Richard Newton Chance – (Principal, Queen Elizabeth’s School, Devon) and Peter Burton, (Headteacher, St Mark’s CE Primary School, Croydon) joined the speakers on stage. To the question of what happens next, regards neuroscience affecting classroom practice, Newton Chance said: ‘The interface between education and neuroscience doesn’t really exist. There’s interesting work, but it’s not really penetrating into practice.’ Mareschal said there’s a need for an ‘island’ in the middle (between education and neuroscience) and cognitive neuroscience is that island. ‘Cognitive psychology has already influenced classroom practice,’ he said.

Another member of the audience asked about the possibility of using neuroscience research to find out why what works works, rather than coming up with new approaches. Tolmie responded that it’s important not to see neuroscience as having unique power – ‘we need behavioural data too,’ he said. Mareschal added that educational neuroscience isn’t about overthrowing what’s out there, rather it’s about explaining why some practices work, and seeing if they can be optimised. Simon highlighted the ‘Thinking Science’ teaching package and she wondered if neuroscience could help explain its positive outcomes. Burton, meanwhile, said he would like to see knowledge about the brain utilised to aid the learning and memorisation of scientific facts.

Will we ever bridge the gap between neuroscience and educational practices in the classroom? The question is more urgent than ever. A new survey of teachers in the UK and Netherlands has found that the more they know about the brain, the more likely they are to endorse educational neuromyths (Frontiers in Educational Psychology; see The Learning Skills Foundation are planning more of these seminars on educational neuroscience (check their website for future events, and the chair for the evening Jerry Jarvis invited new members to join Learnus – ‘a policy think tank whose mission is to act as a conduit between academic research in educational neuroscience and other learning sciences and teachers in the classroom’ (see


The National Institute for Health Research Fellowship Programme has launched its sixth round of awards. Five levels of NIHR Fellowship award are available: doctoral, postdoctoral, career development, senior research and transitional research. Applications are welcome from those who can demonstrate a role in, and contribution to, improving the health or health care of the population served by the NHS. As research fund is devolved, applicants should be based at an institution in England. Potential applicants based in Northern Ireland or Wales must inform their local R&D office of their intention to submit an application. The closing date for application is 16 January.

The Higher Education Academy (HEA) has two funding schemes available.
l    International Scholarship Scheme to investigate international HE learning and teaching that is interesting, challenging and innovative, and to disseminate this within the UK. Up to £20,000 is available for a 3- to 6-month study visit. The closing date for application is 9 January 2013. See
l    Collaborative Teaching Development Grants open for nominations on 7 January 2013. The grants provide funding for two or more departments or other groupings within or between HE institutions that support the enhancement of learning and teaching. The project lead must be a Fellow of the HEA. The closing date for applications is 28 February 2013. See

Stroke Association Project Grants are available to fund the whole spectrum of stroke research – from prevention and risk factors, through to treatment and rehabilitation. The development research project grants are for projects that do not incorporate a clinical trial. The closing date for applications is 8 February 2013.

The Allan and Nesta Charitable Trust have grants available for PhD students to help meet tuition cost in the last year of their course. The Trust also offers £300 grants towards gap year expenses.

Stories of psychology
Christian Jarrett reports from a symposium organised by the Society’s History of Psychology Centre

Held at the Wellcome Collection in London in October, this second ‘annual’ symposium organised by the Society’s History of Psychology Centre took us on a tour of love, lies, tears and the stereotyping of women. It also featured the story of a nearly forgotten inspirational woman, and concluded with a mind-bending talk about extraordinary beliefs.

Geoff Bunn (Manchester Metropolitan University) set the ball rolling with this question – ‘Is the lie detector essentially a love detector in disguise?’ Consider some of the clues Bunn has uncovered. A lie detector featured on a Valentine’s card printed in 1931, around a decade after its invention. An uncanny number of early photographs show the lie detector being administered to a woman by a man, rather than the other way around. All three pioneers of the lie detector – John Larson, William Marston and Leonarde Keeler – met their wives through their work with the polygraph. An issue (#44) of the Lois Lane DC comic, published in 1963, featured Superman being administered a ‘heart meter’ test to see whether he really loves Lois or her rival Lana. ‘This machine couldn’t possibly detect which girl I prefer,’ Superman protests, ‘the circuits are adjusted to detect only the emotions of women.’

Superman’s observation echoed the origins of the lie detector and the early focus on female test subjects. After the failure of criminal anthropology to detect reliable outward signs of inner criminality, Bunn said the field at the start of the 20th century became fascinated by female criminals and the hidden signs of their deception. This idea of the deceitful female has deep roots (take the example of Schopenhauer, who said women have an ‘instinctive treachery’), yet paradoxically, women are also associated traditionally with mother nature and all that is true.’ ‘It was criminologists’ fascination with the female offender that opened up the space and possibility of the lie detector,’ Bunn said, ‘a space that was then entered into by the who-dunnits and pulp fiction novelists.’

Next, Elizabeth Valentine (Royal Holloway, University of London) gave us a potted biography of Jessie Murray,the woman who founded the Medico-Psychological Clinic in London in 1913 and the associated Society for the Study of Orthopsychics. Have you heard of this often overlooked pioneer? She has no Wikipedia entry, but Murray was significant in early 20th-century psychoanalysis, for her clinic was the first in the country to offer psychoanalytic training and therapy to the general public (shell-shocked soldiers were among those treated, and Susan Isaacs was among the prominent psychoanalysts to be trained).

Valentine shared her discoveries about Murray’s social and professional connections. She lived with a female companion, Julia Turner, and both were active in the suffragette movement. This led to useful contacts, including the novelist May Sinclair, who became a clinic benefactor. Murray was also a member of the Women’s Freedom League, the Women’s Tax Resistance League and was involved with the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology. Murray’s aim was for her clinic to be affordable, and perhaps inevitably it ran into financial difficulties. After Murray’s death in 1920, the clinic’s personnel were commandeered for the British Psychoanalytic Society and the Tavistock by Ernest Jones, who’d always been a critic of Murray’s clinic (among other complaints, he felt the place was too Jungian).

Murray’s ashes are interred at Highgate cemetery. ‘Murray’s grave is symbolic,’ Valentine said. ‘There is now no gravestone, only a broken cross bearing the words “In Loving Memory,” which may or may not belong to the grave.’

Next, Thomas Dixon (Queen Mary, University of London) – a consultant for the recent BBC series Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip – An Emotional History of Britain – surveyed thoughts and theories about crying through the last century. To this day, he said the function of tears has not been explained. Darwin thought the only useful purpose of tears was to wash the eye and that emotional crying had somehow hijacked this function.

Many have compared tears to other bodily secretions – most recently, Boris Johnson, who spoke of the end of the Olympics as a ‘juddering tear-sodden climax’ – and perhaps such metaphors help explain the discomfort many people continue to feel at public displays of weeping.
The American psychoanalyst Phyllis Greenacre distinguished between stream weeping and shower weeping in women. Both are exhibitionist, she believed, but whereas the shower weeper is sadly resigned to her lack of a penis, the streamer has persistent penis envy and cries in imitation of male urination. Meanwhile Thomas Szasz saw crying as a regression to the amniotic wetness of the womb.

But Dixon’s main focus was on the writings of Arthur Koestler (‘he did read and think about tears more than anyone else’), in particular his theory of tears in his 1964 book The Act of Creation, in which he specifies five types of weeping – tears of raptness, mourning, relief, sympathy and self-pity. Only the first – raptness – met with Koestler’s approval. In contrast, he only ever used children and women to illustrate instances of the other types, betraying a frequent ‘casual misogyny’ in his accounts. When it came to tears of raptness, Koestler was more respectful, speaking of a transcending experience, a ‘passive acquiescence’, stemming from a craving to be part of a greater whole – be that mother, society, humanity or some kind of deity. Dixon concluded by wondering whether Koestler had wept as he wrote the suicide note in 1982 that foretold his and his wife’s taking of their own lives together the following year.

Last up, Peter Lamont (by coincidence, of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh) provided a critique of the approach parapsychology has taken to the study of ‘extraordinary beliefs’. Lamont said parapsychology has assumed a ‘psychology of error’ whereby it attempts to understand why so many people subscribe to false beliefs. By taking a stance on people’s beliefs, and even attempting to reduce them, Lamont said psychologists risked affecting their own subject matter.

That’s why it’s important to study the history of extraordinary ideas, Lamont said. As an example he focused on the Davenport Brothers’ Sprit Cabinet, which toured in the 1860s. The brothers appeared in their cabinet tied up, their musical instruments out of reach. When the cabinet was closed, the instruments could be heard, and when re-opened, the brothers were still in their tied up position. Many inferred that spirits must have played the instruments. Even when the brothers were caught cheating, many spiritualists continued to believe in an ‘extraordinary explanation’ for the music. For example, when the brothers were tied too tight and the instruments didn’t play, this was blamed on the spirits failing. When paint was daubed on the instruments and later found on the brothers’ hands, this too was blamed on bad spirits spreading the paint. ‘Any fact can be framed in line with our beliefs,’ Lamont said, whether we are believers or sceptics. For sceptics, it’s a case of framing an anomaly as ‘the product of error, chance or fraud.’

Lamont, himself a former magician, remains puzzled by, but does not seek an extraordinary explanation for, a levitation illusion performed by the 19th-century medium Daniel Dunglas Home (who was never caught cheating in 25 years). The illusion was performed in front of an audience that included known sceptics and members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, including the amateur psychologist Edward Cox, who was so persuaded that he invoked
a new ‘natural’ psychic force to explain what he’d seen.

Could anything persuade Lamont to accept an extraordinary explanation? To this question from the audience, Lamont recalled a performance of the legendary Hooker Card Rise trick that he saw at a magic convention in the States, alongside an audience of fellow magicians. The part that involved a floating teddy bear’s head being covered with a large glass bowl (thus precluding the use of wires) left Lamont baffled: ‘I have absolutely no idea how that happened, and no one in the room could figure out that trick. Nobody. But none of us thought it was paranormal.’

Human enhancement

A report has called for more research into the future of human enhancement technologies and how best to regulate them, especially in the workplace. Human Enhancement and the Future of Work is based on the discussions held at a series of workshops in March this year, and is now freely available online (download the PDF via

There are warnings of potential problems ahead – for example, that employees might be coerced by employers to use enhancements; that people with disabilities might feel compelled to use technological aids, rather than workplaces adapting to the needs of the disabled; and that injustices could arise as access to new forms of enhancement might be limited to the affluent. It’s also possible that some enhancements may come to be viewed as compulsory for some professions, for example
if they can be shown to increase safety.

The report calls for more research into the costs and benefits of different forms of enhancement including digital and pharmaceutical, and more planning about regulation, especially since many drugs and technologies are already available online. ‘Cognition-enhancing drugs present the greatest immediate challenge for regulators and other policy-makers,’ it says. One example is the drug Modafinil, shown in a 2011 study to aid cognitive f

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