The frescos of Sistine Chapel, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the unpredictable Leo Messi’s dribbles… these are only some examples of creativity at the highest level. But creativity is not only a prerogative of few “beautiful minds”. Every person in everyday life has to deal with common problems that require a certain dose of creativity to be solved. Convergent thinking, that is, to follow pre-established logical steps in order to achieve a correct conclusion, has often to be combined with divergent thinking, a creative process that requires to explore different (divergent) possibilities to generate new ideas.
Of course, there are many different forms of creativity, and many ways of measuring it. The authors of the study described here chose two tests in order to measure the creativity of 100 persons that participated to the experiment. The Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults (ATTA) quantified the divergent thinking level of people, while the Creative Achievement Questionnaire (CAQ) was used to determine their creative achievements in the real life.
In the ATTA, participants were asked for finding a solution to simple creative questions like, for example, “In how many manners would you use a toothpick?”, or for making a picture starting from an incomplete figure. Such problems forced them to seek different of ideas that were finally scored on the basis of their number and originality.
On the other hand, CAQ refers to real life: participants answered questions about their achievements in ten fields related with creativity (visual art, music, dance, architectural design, creative writing, humor, inventions, culinary arts, scientific discovery, theater and film).
However, the main goal of the study was not psychological. Scientists wanted to investigate whether it is possible to predict creativity patterns starting from the analysis of genes related with creativity. In fact, it is known that dopamine pathways in brain – specifically in frontal and striatum regions – are associated with divergent thinking. So, variations in the activity of the genes involved in dopamine pathway might have a role in the type and the level of creativity of people.
Following the last hypothesis, researchers compared ATTA and CAQ results with the polymorphisms of two genes associated with dopaminergic function. One gene codes for the enzyme COMT, involved in the dopamine degradation pathway in the prefrontal cortex. The other gene codes for the DAT protein, that is responsible for the dopamine reuptake in the striatum.
The participants of the study presented small variations (polymorphisms) in COMT amino acid composition: some of them had a Valine (Val) at a specific site of the enzyme, while in others Val was substituted by a Methionine (Met). Moreover, some people had two homozygous alleles (Val/Val or Met/Met), while others were heterozygous (Val/Met). Analogously, two allelic forms of the gene coding for DAT protein were present. There were 9 or 10 copies of DAT allele, in homozygosis or heterozygosis as well.
In this study, COMT and DAT polymorphisms have shown to have a functional role that affects the dopaminergic system, thus modulating creative performance. Without entering in details, the study has found a clear interaction between both polymorphisms, that even led to different results, depending on the DAT polymorphism. For example, people with 9 copies of DAT gene had better results in ATTA divergent thinking test when associated with Val/Met alleles of COMT gene. Conversely, people with 10 copies of DAT gene had better results when associated with Met/Met polymorphism… and so on. Every possible combination affected creativity with a different range of shades.
The activity of dopamine in frontal and striatum regions of brain is related with creativity in humans. Interactions among dopamine pathways in these regions, together with the reciprocal influence of COMT and DAT dopamine genes, affects the dopaminergic system. So, genetic studies can be used to predict creativity at an individual level.
Zabelina D. et al. Dopamine and the Creative Mind: Individual Differences in Creativity Are Predicted by Interactions between Dopamine Genes DAT and COMT. PLoS One. 2016 Jan 19;11(1):e0146768.
The elaboration of this post has been financed by the project PI15/01082, as a part of the National Plan of I+D+I and co-financed by the ISCIII – General Deputy Direction for Evaluation and Development of Health Research – and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).