What’s the Deal with Dopamine? Part 3: Correlations Between Creativity and Madness

By Jimmy Warden

*This post is part three of a three part series about the neurotransmitter, dopamine.*

Dopamine seems to have an influence on damn near everything that we do. From our decisions that we make in the moment, to some of the feelings that we experience, like joy or disappointment, from how we build relationships, what our desires are, what our habits or addictions are, and what our goals are. Not only does dopamine have an influence on all of the ideas previously mentioned, it also has an influence on both what we know as creativity and what we know as madness. The craziest part about all of this is that creativity and madness have some blurred lines and are a lot closer related than people may think.

Perceiving the World Through Models

In order for us to make any meaning of the world around us, we need to have some type of foundational understanding of it, so that we have representations of what things are and what their purpose is. This is what scientists call a model. Models are a way that we make meaning of the world that is out of our grasp. When something isn’t within our direct personal perception, we must imagine what it smells like, tastes like (if it’s food), sounds like, feels like, and looks like. This is because it is not close enough for us to smell it, taste it, hear it, feel it, or see it. Models also allow us to make meaning of these abstract ideas and objects. For example, when we see a type of car that we’ve never seen before, we still understand that it’s a car, because of the model we have in our minds of what a car looks like and sounds like. Our model of a car might now be slightly reconfigured as far as the understanding of what conceptually qualifies as a car.

Model making is driven by dopamine because it is a process that we use to break down old conceptual understandings of the world around us to create new ones. Dopamine is always trying to make things better for us, and it comes into play when we are making new models. These models tend to be out of our physical reach, which is why dopamine is needed to construct these models. Dopamine allows us to make meaning of things that are not within our reach because there is now an imagined ideal. When we have something within our physical grasp, we are actually experiencing it via our “here and now” neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, endorphins, oxytocin, and endocannabinoids. These H&N neurotransmitters are how we experience sensations and often times emotions. Something in our immediate environment causes us to hear or smell something, to which we might have an emotional attachment such as joy or fear. For example, you hear the ding of the oven, you smell the cookies that are being made, and you might feel joyous or excited that the cookies are ready. No matter what models we have constructed, and whether or not they are within our reach, there needs to be a level of significance of those models in relationship to us.

The Role of Salience in Relation to Dopamine

In order to make a model, there needs to be a certain amount of salience. Salience is the level of significance or importance that something has within our lives. Something that is salient for one person, may not be salient for others, therefore it is highly variable. Saliency tends to be correlated with novelty and newness because novelty and newness have a tendency to “stick out” more and catch our attention. This is how saliency is correlated with dopamine. In order for something to be salient, it must trigger desire dopamine. This signals the brain’s attention to make significance of it, and try to respond appropriately. The things that we always experience on a daily basis are not always salient because they are not new, but rather they are mundane, due to the fact it is repititive and predictable. This is inhibition of salience in action.

Saliency helps us build models because in order for something to be included in a model, there must be a level of importance to it, so that it can be included in the model. We often perceive more of what we believe is important because if something is important, it will stick out in our visual and thought schemas. This is how we create belief systems, core values, and frameworks of society. We often tend to take on the belief systems, core values, and societal frameworks that have worked for the generations before because they served as models for success. If they provide a framework for success, it would also be important and salient to those individuals that value success. This is essentially how knowledge and wisdom is passed down through the years. People have models of what worked for them and didn’t work for them in life, then they reconfigured those models to try to make them a bit better, and this process happens hundreds of thousands of times over a lifetime. At a certain point, it develops into a successful model, that people want to replicate aspects of in their own life. This is the also the creative process in a nutshell.

Creativity

We are engaging in creativity when we take old models and replace them with re-created new ones. This is a dopamine driven process, due to the fact there is an imagined ideal future outcome. This is how Isaac Newton came up with the laws of motion and the conecpt of gravity, this is how Beethoven wrote his symphonies, this is how J. Cole writes his raps, and the list can go on and on. Essentially, when a person is engaging in any type of creative work they are constantly re-designing their way of thinking to allow their full creativity to come through. Their imagined ideal outcome continues to change as they get further in their process because their mind is free-flowing in the present moment, which inevitably changes each future outcome.

On the contrary, when people have an ideal outcome in mind, and it is fixed, what they do throughout their creative process can become mentally exhausting as they calculate their every step towards that outcome, rather than letting their guard down, and letting their mind roam free. This is often found in people with dopaminergic personality traits, such as perfectionism and neuroticism. This obssession with perfection tends to have a negative affect on relationships as others will perceive the perfectionist as distant and indifferent towards people. This can make relationships very challenging for highly critical, creative individuals. When people are never satisfied, they can actually lead themselves down the path of psychosis and psychopathy because they are continually driven by dopamine whispering in their ear to do a litte bit more to make their outcomes a little bit better, no matter how great they may already be. This is a big reason why there is a fine line between creativity and madness.

Fine Line Between Creativity and Madness

The fine line between these two aspects of personality can be attributed to the fact that they are both dopamine driven processes that involve how models are created and how salient those models are. The mental illnesses of schizophrenia and psychopathy are driven by dopamine because people that suffer from those illnesses give salience to ordinary things that the majority of humans would not give salience to. This is what’s called low latent inhibition. It means that those with schizophrenia and psychopathy can’t “shut off” parts of their models of the world. For example, someone with schizophrenia might have the thought that a newsreporter on TV is talking about them. That is an example of something salient to a schizophrenic, but might not be salient to the everyday person.

Low latent inhibition also occurs during the creative process because it is needed in order to make new models, to allow for new understandings that weren’t important, to become important, and replace old understandings that are no longer important. Low latent inhibition also allows for the mind to flow freely without an attachment to thoughts or feelings during the creative process. For example, writers often just write their first drafts without much attachment to what they’re writing in that moment because if they did, their thoughts wouldn’t be flowing freely. Rather, they would be controlled by the mind, rather than let creativity take the wheel. In a way, really creative people end up acting a bit schizophrenic with some of the things they might say or do within their process because the ideas are just flowing out of them without a filtering system that checks for saliency. This is also why the creative process can become a bit mad, as the constant fine-tuning and obssession over all of the minutiae of a creative project can drive one to psychosis, as stated before.

In summary

In order for us to make meaning of the world around us, especially those parts of the world which we cannot experience the physical or emotional sensations of, we need to create models of our environment, so that we can understand all of its different parts. Models are created through a dopaminergic process because in order for something to be in a model, it needs to be important, and in order for something to be important to us, it needs to have salience. Salience triggers desire dopamine, often in the form of a desired outcome. This is also how the creative process takes place. There is a constant flow of new, salient ideas, due to a low latent inhibition, and these ideas do not have much emotional attachment at the time. It is during the refining portion of the creative process that there is a tendency for one to get emotional because they are now attached to the ideal outcome, due to their perfectionist tendencies. This can potentially lead to bouts of psychosis and psychopathy, which is what makes the lines blurry between creativity and madness.

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