The list of promiscuous poets and artists is long, as is the list of poets’ and artists’ children who suffer from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Now new research links creative ability and sexual success–and explains why something as seemingly maladaptive as schizophrenia would persist among humans.

Psychologist Daniel Nettle of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in England and his colleagues recruited 425 British men and women through advertisements in a small town newsletter and various specialty lists for creative types. The researchers surveyed this group with questions designed to measure various schizophrenic behaviors, artistic output and sexual success, among other aspects of their personal history.

Results of that survey showed that people who displayed strong evidence of “unusual experiences” and “impulsive non-conformity”–two broad types of schizophrenic behavior–had more sexual partners than their peers and were more likely to be involved in artistic pursuits, either professionally or as a hobby. Those who professionally pursued the arts had the highest average number of partners–5.5–compared to just over four for the less creativestudy participants.

Of course, there are a number of possible reasons for the artists’ mating success. “Creative people are often considered to be very attractive and get lots of attention as a result,” Nettle explains. “It could also be that very creative types lead a bohemian lifestyle and tend to act on more sexual impulses and opportunities.”

But the finding, published yesterday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (B), does offer some insights into why schizophrenia, which seems to be passed from generation to generation and affects roughly one percent of people, does not disappear from the general population. Even non-creative types who revealed an urge to resist conformity had more sexual success. In short, some of the traits associated with the debilitating mental illness can actually increase a person’s desirability. And sometimes produce major works of art as well.

By David Biello

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