Is Creativity in Your DNA?

Alina Cohen
Sep 4, 2019 5:06PM

The numbers are in, and the United States is officially obsessed with genetics. According to MIT Technology Review, over 26 million people, including many Americans, have now taken at-home DNA tests. Kits such as AncestryDNA and 23andMe have produced surprising revelations and spawned a new genre of memoir. The 23andMe phone app can now tell you whether you’re predisposed to breast cancer, bug bites, and a fear of public speaking.

These results go so far as to propose that our personalities may be rooted in our double helixes. Research suggests that creativity, particularly in the musical realm, may be tied to biology. And as we learn more about ourselves, it becomes ever easier to resign to fatalism, or biological determinism: Why try to be creative if our dispositions are encoded in our bodies? Luckily, that’s only part of the story—creativity is notoriously difficult to define, and research suggests it’s significantly more complex than a series of chemical compounds.

Back in 2009, The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America published a study that addressed the heritability of musical aptitude. It concluded that genes affiliated with chromosome 4 may influence humans’ abilities to understand pitch and process auditory information. Humans have 23 chromosome pairs in every cell, and each chromosome is segmented into different genes. Chromosome 4 alone contains 191 million base pairs, the building blocks of chromosomes. These are responsible for such varied traits as red hair and deafness. Yet the very first line of the study’s abstract is telling: “The genetic influences on mental diseases, skills, and behaviors are essentially entirely unknown,” the researchers wrote.

While companies such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA purport to demystify the biological data in our cells, scientists are upfront about how enigmatic our own bodies, brains, and motivations remain, despite significant advances in technology. Right now, the only creativity-affiliated trait that 23andMe predicts is a participant’s ability to match musical pitch. The company has created a statistical model after identifying 529 genetic markers associated with this skill. Yet their ability to guess correctly still varies widely, from 34 percent to 65 percent, depending on a participant’s genetics, age, and sex.

In 2014, a group of researchers led by Jaana Oikkonen published a study in Molecular Psychiatry that dealt with similar issues. Their abstract, too, began with a disclaimer acknowledging the limitations of contemporary research: “Creative activities in music represent a complex cognitive function of the human brain, whose biological basis is largely unknown,” they wrote. Their conclusions suggested that creativity, as it relates to music, isn’t constrained to a single chromosome. Instead, they linked composing ability to chromosome 4, arranging ability to chromosome 16, and non-musical creativity to the X chromosome.

A group of researchers from Northwestern University and Leiden University in the Netherlands conducted another study to look at creativity more holistically. They measured participants’ “divergent thinking”—the ability to develop novel, appropriate solutions to a problem—which is commonly considered an indicator of creativity. The researchers found a positive correlation between creativity and genes associated with dopamine. The more dopamine—a neurotransmitter associated with focus and pleasure—the more creativity. Such findings also relate to studies that link creativity and mental illness (which also has a genetic component). High dopamine levels may also be connected to bipolar disorder, which a number of creative figures have had.

In his 2018 book, Creativity: The Human Brain in the Age of Innovation, neuropsychologist Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg examines many of the recent studies attempting to link genetics with creativity. Israeli scientists have narrowed in on dancers, while researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm have, like the Northwestern researchers, examined the relationship between creativity and dopamine receptors. Goldberg writes that the ever-expansive contemporary research is “both elating and deflating.” Each new finding is interesting to him, and given the “sheer volume” of the studies, he expects that we’re bound for a breakthrough sooner or later. Yet he also acknowledges that “so far these breakthroughs have failed to materialize.” No single study has been able to prove, beyond doubt, the connections between genetics and creativity.

One of the problems, according to Goldberg, is that creativity is actually a combination of traits—an amalgam of novelty-seeking and social behavior, for example. “Instead of a head-on quest for the genetic basis of creativity,” he writes, “the search for the genetic basis of such fundamental, broad cognitive prerequisites of creativity may prove to be more fruitful.” In other words, researchers might just need to get even more…creative.

Alina Cohen