Schizophrenia and Creativity

Heinz Werner (1890-1964) marked one dimension of development as that moving from a syncretic level to a discrete one, that is, from a "state of relative globality and lack of differentiation to a state of increasing differentiation." Syncretic cognition entails a dedifferentiation of perceptual qualities in subjective experience, the most predominant example being synesthesia. But syncretic cognition, according to Werner, also refers to "the lack of differentiation between what one dreams and what one sees, as is found in psychosis." Schizophrenic thinking could thus be characterized in terms of this 'primitive' level of syncretic experience. In fact, both creative thinking and schizophrenic thinking could rely on, or have access to, this same syncretic level of cognition. On the creative side, this dedifferentiation would allow for flexibility of perception and thought, as categories or concepts dissolve, become entwined and in general interact. On the schizophrenic side, this would entail some 'prelogical,' 'paleological' or 'looseness' of thinking, which could suggest an incoherence of thought, an impaired mode of thought or a thought disturbance, as discussed earlier.

In one study, both syncretic cognition and symbolic cognition were investigated. Participants were drawn from three groups: schizophrenics, visual artists, and controls. The artists had no psychiatric history; the controls had neither a psychiatric history, nor were actively engaged in visual art. Both schizophrenics and visual artists were hypothesized to exhibit a greater degree of syncretic cognition than normal controls. Turning to symbolic cognition, a distinction was drawn between metaphor production and metaphor comprehension. Metaphor production was assessed using the Barron Symbolic Equivalence Test, comprising 10 symbolic images (e.g., Tall trees in the middle of a field). For each item, the participant is required to produce three metaphors or 'equivalent symbolic images.' The number of admissible verbal responses (i.e., those that match structurally or functionally the given metaphors) provides a measure of ideational fluency. A second measure pertained to an evaluation of the participant's creativity (originality), whereby each verbal response was rated on a five-point evaluative scale, with a test score being the mean of these evaluations. Metaphor comprehension was assessed using Gorham's Proverbs Test, comprising 15 proverbs (e.g., Don't cry over spilt milk). For each item, the participant is required to choose one of three possible interpretations listed for each: a concrete one (rated 0), a second which is more abstract, but still not quite related to the conventional meaning of the proverb (rated 1), and the third which is both abstract and presents the conventional meaning of the proverb (rated 2). The participant's score is the sum of these 15 ratings.

Both ideational fluency and originality were found to be similar for schizophrenics and controls. Thus, metaphor production was not impaired amongst schizophrenics. In contrast, proverb comprehension was impaired in schizophrenia, as one would expect. Both schizophrenics and visual artists were found to exhibit a high degree of imagination and absorbed involvement. Visual artists, as opposed to the schizophrenics, were able to exhibit both a vivid imagination and a high degree of metaphor comprehension. Thus, schizophrenics simply do not have the tools to both constrain their thought and to enable successful hierarchic integration of their thinking within a coherent conceptual system. Nevertheless, given that they do not seem to be impaired in metaphor production (either in terms of fluency or originality), they could well exhibit creative thinking - though perhaps not one constrained to practical use.

Finally, one should consider the preoccupation of schizophrenics with metaphor. One notion in the literature is that the schizophrenic experience itself is 'permeated with metaphorical meaning.' If schizophrenics engage in metaphoric thinking to understand and describe their unusual experiences (positive symptoms), then their delusions might well conform to the following equation:

Unusual Experience + Metaphoric Thinking = Delusion.

As one author has written, "the patient is delusional because he or she is actually experiencing anomalies that demand an explanation." Other equations appearing in the literature are the following:

Unusual Experience + Normal Logic = Delusion;

Normal Experience + Abnormal Logic = Delusion.

Each of the latter options has its problems. The notion that schizophrenics apply normal logic is contraindicated by their clear deficit on a logical reasoning task. The notion that schizophrenics apply abnormal logic is contraindicated by the familiar fact that normal individuals also exhibit faulty logic in judgment, decision making, and reasoning. If the schizophrenic were able to become absorbed in solving a problem not intimately related to his or her own subjective experience, then an engagement with metaphoric thinking would certainly be predictive of creativity. This is worthy of further research.

To conclude: The present article has considered the relationship between schizophrenic thinking and creative thinking, providing an overview of the major views here. Positive symptoms of schizophrenia and positive schizotypy seem to be related to both creativity (divergent thinking) and an impaired LH functioning, while negative symptoms and negative schi-zotypy seem to be related to both convergent thinking and an impaired RH functioning. The role of metaphoric thinking in schizophrenia should be further considered in future research.

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