Are You Genetically Connected to Creative Ability?

The idea that we are connected to our individual creative talent through our personal genetic build can be a scary concept for some, and a quite exciting concept for others. Some of us might believe that because our parents weren’t creative or artistic, that we simply will have little talent in these areas as well. However, creativity is found to run deeper than one generation.

We have found that the length complexity of the genetic code contributes to our creative abilities dating back to the beginning of our family tree. As you might presume, genealogy plays a role here in simplifying the process of understanding past creative relatives, and how they contributed to our current gene creativity.

genetics creative artistic talent

Creative ability is embedded deep within our genetic structure.

In my first example I will showcase Mozart and his lineage. Mozart was the son of Leopold Mozart, a german composer, conductor, educator and violinist. After some research we find that the Mozart family creative and artistic momentum didn’t fully come into swing until Leopold stepped into the picture.

Born in November of 1719 to Johann Georg Mozart (1679–1736) and Anna Maria Sulzer (1696–1766); Georg a bookbinder(someone who binds books by hand) and Anna, which very little is known other than the raising of 8 children. Continuing, we find that the secession of relatives dating back to 1625 in the Mozart family were all laborers including bricklayers and farmers. It seems that it wasn’t until Leopold, who sang in the church choir, that the creative forces hit.

After Leapold, Wolfgang Amadeus had 8 children for whom over half were verified musically inclined. This paints a picture of as if the creativity hit a critical mass after Leopold, propelled by Wolfgang.

J. S. Bach’s father and uncles were accomplished musicians, Charlie Parker’s old man played piano on the vaudeville circuit, Paul McCartney’s father preformed the trumpet in a band, and Prince got his name from his dad’s jazz trio. Given these and countless other examples, people have often assumed that musical talent runs in the family. Now a study of 15 Finnish families, published in the Journal of Medical Genetics, provides the first proof that musical ability is indeed linked to genes.

Medical geneticist Irma Jär­velä of the University of Helsinki and her colleagues analyzed 224 family members who either were themselves, or were re­lated to, professional musicians or active amateurs. The subjects were given standard tests of musical aptitude, such as the ability to discern differences in the pitch or duration of two tones. Järvelä found an overall heritability of nearly 50 percent. That is, nature rather than nurture accounted for almost half the observed differences in aptitude, helping explain why some subjects with no musical training scored at a professional level.

Järvelä also located several DNA sequences that correlate with musical ability. One of the implicated genes codes for a protein that may be involved in translating into neural signals the tremors of hair cells in the inner ear. Another gene she identified had previously been linked to dyslexia, suggesting that language development and musical ability may have the same origin. “We aim now to identify molecules that could help us understand the evolution of music and how music mediates its biological effects,” Järvelä says.

In a 2013 report by Jeremy Summers in the Genetic Literacy Project, we find that a specific correlation or grouping of genes are directly connected with musical creativity. A recent study in PLoS ONE gauged the musical creativity of participants based on their ability to judge pitch and time as well as crucial skills such as composing, improvisation and arranging. By studying the genetics of their participants, the researchers discovered that the presence of a particular cluster of genes directly correlated with musical creativity. This cluster, which is associated with a gene family involved in the plasticity of the brain, is responsible for the brain’s ability to break and form new connections between cells within the brain.

While creative ability is thought to be largely about divergent thinking, which describes a method of thinking used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions, researchers agree that it is also influenced by generating endless associations.

creativity artistic talent

Creativity has no limits.

The Finnish team noticed that participants with increased creativity had duplicate DNA strands that contained a gene that affected the processing of serotonin, a key neurotransmitter. A recent study from scientists at the Medical University of Vienna found that elevated serotonin levels in the brain increases the connectivity in the brain’s posterior cingulate cortex, a key center for awareness and internally directed thought.

This research confirms a study by Cornell University scientists two years ago that found that individuals who are artistically creative have a specific genetic characteristic that may enhance their creative ability.

The brain, which is divided into two hemispheres, is connected by a bundle of fibers known as the corpus callosum. Researchers have discovered that the connectivity between the brain’s two halves directly determine creative ability. The Cornell University team found that creative people, such as writers, artists and musicians, tend to have a smaller corpus callosum, which could enhance their creative ability by allowing each half of their brain to develop thoughts and ideas more fully.

According to the study, enhanced hemispheric specialization allows for “the incubation of ideas that are critical for the divergent-thinking component of creativity, and it is the momentary inhibition of this hemispheric independence that accounts for the illumination that is part of the innovative stage of creativity.”

These recent studies are especially intriguing, considering that serotonin, which is known primarily for regulating sleep patterns, body temperature and sexual arousal, has also been found to play key roles in psychiatric disorders, such as bipolar depression.

For the past four decades, scientists at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute in Stockholm have been conducting one of the world’s largest population-based studies on individuals with mental illness. They have discovered that severe neuropsychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, drastically limit creativity while less severe illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, often enhance creativity. The team found that individuals with bipolar disorder tend to end up in professions that demand creativity.

This is not surprising, considering many great artists and creative geniuses, including Winston Churchill, Ludwig van Beethoven and Ernest Hemingway, displayed bipolar symptoms and were thought to have some form of the disorder.

The Swedish study also studied the siblings of participants with psychiatric disorders and found that while they did not share the mental illness, they did share an increased creative ability.

This new wave of research suggests that genetics play a large role in shaping a person’s creative ability. Of course, this is only part of the story, as how these “creative genes” are expressed and the environment in which we grow up, or the nurture aspect, also help shape creativity.

In the study high music test scores were significantly associated with creative functions in music (p< .0001), suggesting composing, improvising and arranging music demands musical aptitude. Creativity is a multifactorial genetic trait involving a complex network made up of a number of genes and environment. Here was shown for the first time that the creative functions in music have a strong genetic component (h2 =.84; composing h2 =.40; arranging h2 =.46; improvising h2 = .62) in Finnish multigenerational families. Additionally the heritability estimates of the musical aptitude were remarkable.

“Music is social communication between individuals,” says Liisa Ukkola PhD of Life Sciences research in Finland, “Darwin proposed that singing is used to attract the opposite sex. Furthermore, lullabies are implied to attach infant to a parent and singing or playing music together may add group cohesion. Thus, it is justified to hypothesize that music perception and creativity in music are linked to the same phenotypic spectrum of human cognitive social skills, like human bonding and altruism both associated with AVPR1A. We have shown for the first time in the molecular level that music perception has an attachment creating impact.”

Building Your Creativity in Spite of Your Genes 

consciousness creativity genetics

Are your creative abilities a product of your genetics?

A 1993 study by Ericsson and colleagues helped popularize the idea that we can all practice our way to tuba greatness if we so choose. The authors found that by age 20 elite musicians had practiced for an average of 10,000 hours, concluding that differences in skill are not “due to innate talent.” Author Malcolm Gladwell lent this idea some weight in his 2008 book “Outliers.” Gladwell writes that greatness requires an enormous time investment and cites the “10,000-Hour Rule” as a major key to success in various pursuits from music (The Beatles) to software supremacy (Bill Gates).

However, new research led by Michigan State University psychology professor David Z. Hambrick suggests that, unfortunately for many of us, success isn’t exclusively a product of determination — that despite even the most hermitic practice routine, our genes might still leave greatness out of reach.

Hambrick and his colleague Elliot Tucker-Drob, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas, set out to investigate the genetic influences on musical accomplishment using data from a study of 850 same-sex twin pairs from the 1960s. Participants where originally queried on their musical successes and how often they practiced, both of which Hambrick found to have a genetic component.

One quarter of the genetic influence on musical accomplishment appears related to the act of practicing itself. Certain genes and genotypes presumably confer qualities that drive some kids to hole up in their basement and, at the expense of their family’s sanity, perfect that drum fill — traits like musical aptitude, musical enjoyment and motivation, that in turn could draw reinforcement from parents and teachers, leading to even more desire to practice.

Hambrick’s findings don’t reveal what accounts for the remaining majority of genetic influence on musical accomplishment, though he assumes its innate differences in faculties that would logically contribute to musical ability, such as sound processing and motor coordination. Therefore, you can see how genetics aren’t the only factor but, you’ll have to make up in lack of genetics in practice time.

While it seems that our creative ability is highly influenced by our DNA, everyone  is capable of learning to be creative to varying degrees. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

When you look at the evidence it seems that there is a very strong connection between our genetic lineage and our DNA make-up and our creative ability. It is save to say that even if your parents weren’t creative doesn’t predetermine that you will fall short in a creative field. 🙂

-Thomas McGregor

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