Creative Right Down To The Genes – What Twin Studies Say

He’s a chip off the old block — but does this also apply for creativity? Scientists have investigated whether and what role inheritance plays in creative professions — with quite clear results.  

Many children of actors, authors, or artists follow in the footsteps of their parents and look for a creative job. In some families, these patterns can be seen over many generations. Is it all a question of education and role models, or is it the genes that pave the way for this life? After all, creativity is also about talent and temperament, both traits that are also influenced by the genome. The scientific journal Behavior Genetics has now published a hereditary study (1) that shows that a creative profession could also be anchored in DNA.

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Mark Roeling and his colleagues at Oxford University and Free University Amsterdam searched through the data in the Dutch twin register. The database contains information on several thousand identical (monozygotic, MZ) and non-identical (dizygotic, DZ) twins, including their profession. The scientists considered everything that had to do with dance, film, music, theatre, the fine arts, or writing to be artistic.

A total of 233 twins fell into this category. The question Roeling and his colleagues were interested in was: If one twin works in a creative profession, how likely is it that the other twin will do something similar? If the answer is the same for all twins, then genes play no role in the creative career choice. However, if among the identical pairs of twins, whose genetic material is almost identical, there are particularly many artists, filmmakers and authors, and more then among DZ twins, then this shows the influence of the genetic material.

In fact, the researchers found more artists among the identical twin siblings. If an identical twin had a creative profession, there was a 68% probability that his twin brother or sister would also work in a similar profession. In the dizygotic twins, on the other hand, the probability was only 40 percent. After taking the data of normal siblings into their calculations, the scientists calculated the total heritability of creativity with 0.7. In other words: If some of the participants in the study work in a creative profession and others do not, then 70 percent of these differences are due to the genes.

However, the number of twins in the study was not particularly large, so it is worthwhile to look at other studies that have approached this topic. Anna Vinkhuyzen, for example, found a high heritability in creative writing (0.83) but significantly lower values in the category art (0.26) in an evaluation of the same twin register (2). Only a value of 0.4 or more confirms a high heredity. Christian Kandler of Saarland University found high values in a German twin database only with self-assessment of the participants. If the creative vein was examined with tests, the value dropped to 0.26 (3).

This could mean that the genes do not primarily affect the actual creativity, but above all the personality traits that are important in order to be able to live creatively, such as belief in oneself.

Scientists at the University of Helsinki have investigated which genes play a role in real creativity. In a study published in the journal PlosOne (4), researchers wanted to know how well twins could distinguish pitches, how talented they were in composing or improvising. They came across a gene cluster that was linked to people’s musical creativity. The cluster belongs to a group of genes involved in the plasticity of the brain: the brain’s ability to constantly reorganize itself, to break down nerve connections, and replace them with new ones.

The scientists also found increased creativity in subjects who had two copies of a gene that affects the processing of the neurotransmitter serotonin. So does serotonin have an effect on creativity? The results of the researchers receive indirect support from another study (5) in which scientists have visualized the nervous system using magnetic resonance imaging. They observed that higher serotonin levels (produced by the antidepressant Citalopram) increased the connections between nerve cells in important areas of the brain in healthy subjects.

This is part 17 of a series covering twin health provided by Paul Enck from the Tübingen University Hospital and science writer Nicole Simon. Further studies in twin research can be found at TwinHealth website. Translation was done with the assistance of DeepL translator (www.deepl.com/translator)

References:

  1. Roeling MP, Willemsen G, Boomsma DI. Heritability of Working in a Creative Profession. Behav Genet. 2017;47(3):2987-304.
  2. Vinkhuyzen AA, van der Sluis S, Posthuma D, Boomsma DI. The heritability of aptitude and exceptional talent across different domains in adolescents and young adults. Behav Genet. 2009;39(4):380-92.
  3. Kandler C, Riemann R, Angleitner A, Spinath FM, Borkenau P, Penke L. The nature of creativity: The roles of genetic factors, personality traits, cognitive abilities, and environmental sources. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2016;111(2):230-49.
  4. Ukkola-Vuoti L, Kanduri C, Oikkonen J, Buck G, Blancher C, Raijas P, Karma K, Lähdesmäki H, Järvelä I. Genome-wide copy number variation analysis in extended families and unrelated individuals characterized for musical aptitude and creativity in music. PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e56356.
  5. Kraus C, Ganger S, Losak J, Hahn A, Savli M, Kranz GS, Baldinger P, Windischberger C, Kasper S, Lanzenberger R. Gray matter and intrinsic network changes in the posterior cingulate cortex after selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor intake. Neuroimage. 2014;84:236-44.
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