Antonio Preti (1999) Creativity, Genetics and Mental Illness. Psycoloquy: 10(016) Origin Culture (6)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 10(016): Creativity, Genetics and Mental Illness

Commentary on Gabora on Origin-Culture

Antonio Preti
Psychiatry Branch
Centro Medico Genneruxi
via Costantinopoli 42
09129 Cagliari, ITALY


Gabora's scenario for the origin of culture pays careful attention to the mechanisms which lead to the development of the "memetic" mind. A genetic mutation, which results in changes in the threshold of filtering of information units, is thought to be at the origin of the "memetic" mind. Such a mutation might favour unusual mental associations, leading potentially both to behavioural disorders like schizophrenia, and to facilitated creative solutions. A mutation capable of producing behavioural problems in individuals, however, can result in an adaptive advantage only if it produces effects which, beyond this disadvantage at the individual level, are beneficial to the group to which the mutated member belongs. It is difficult for memetic minds to prevail outside those groups benefiting directly from their mutated creative potential. The scenario proposed by Gabora suggests that any hypothesis about the origin of culture as a process subject to selection should pay attention to the neurophysiological fundamentals of brain functioning.


association, creativity, evolution, illness, information-processing, meme, mental schizophrenia
1. Liane Gabora's (1998) target article is a systematic attempt to draw together knowledge from different fields to answer the question of the origin of culture, offering some important suggestions. Several elements in Gabora's article draw upon the most recent discoveries in neuroscience. I will now dwell on one particular point which has especially significant implications.

2. According to Gabora, the origin of culture may be defined as "the bootstrapping of a system by which information patterns self-replicate, (leading to) the selective proliferation of some variants of these self-replicating patterns over others." In this context the term "meme" is used to refer to a unit of cultural information as represented in the brain.

3. It is evident that each meme must coincide with the set of neurons which expresses it. In Gabora's paper, the mind is described as a structure used to filter the flow of memes (i.e. of organized neuronal discharges) on the basis of internal and external cues able to activate these specific sets of neurons.

4. Gabora refers to "myths" about the origin of human culture (Donald, 1991), which hypothesize that "in the beginning" there existed a totally "episodic" mind, i.e. one able to manage only memories linked to immediate stimuli (not only environmental, but also bodily: hunger, thirst, etc.).

5. From this chaos of episodic (and therefore ephemeral) events was born a mind organized in such a manner as to allow it to evoke informational units (memes) even in the absence of external stimuli, it was able to have abstract thoughts, and therefore make associations on a second level (between actual stimuli and representations of stimuli; then between these and representations of the associations themselves, or even between these other stimuli or representations of stimuli, whether past or present).

6. The birth of this "memetic" mind is attributed to a genetic mutation, and it is hard to imagine that it could have arisen in any other way. Such a mutation would have modified the threshold of filtering of the association between information units. As a consequence, memes which would otherwise be filtered out of the operational memory (consciousness?) gain access to this sector of the mind, bringing into operation other memes in a cycle which can lead to creative (i.e. innovative) associations, but also to severe behavioural problems.

7. Gabora refers to neurobiological models of schizophrenia to illustrate the consequences of her hypothesis. Many hypotheses about schizophrenia indeed suggest that a deficit in the systems involved in information-processing could contribute to the symptomatology of the disorder (McGhie & Chapman, 1961; Hansefus & Magaro, 1976; Braff & Geyer, 1990; Cornblatt & Kellp, 1994). Such a deficit could be expressed in a severe behavioural disorder, but it could also favour creative associations between information units (Hansefus & Magaro, 1976; Preti & Miotto, 1997). Many studies have explored the propensity toward innovation and originality in people suffering from psychoses (Arieti, 1974; Preti & Miotto, 1997). This psychosis-linked creative ability is evident in the arts and in language, but is also seen in the sciences and even in extremely abstract disciplines such as mathematics (Hayes, 1998).

8. Genetic mutation influencing the brain areas devoted to language is thought to have an important role in the pathogenesis of schizophrenia (Crow, 1995; Crow, 1997). It is possible that genetic loci controlling the organization of language areas in the brain are particularly crucial to the development of the human specie and can define limits on human thought organization (Crow, 1998).

9. A train of thought originating from the lowering of the threshold of information filtering would be able to "feed itself" without a continuing external stimulus. Gabora gives many examples of how "memes" deriving from unusual associations (an example being that of an intestine used as a waterbag) sprout and fuel themselves. The newly created meme, not arising directly from outside stimuli, is stored in a stock of memories, whence it is able to evoke other memes linked with actual or past stimuli. The entire process originates from a single genetic mutation in one of the systems involved in information-processing.

10. The adaptive advantage for individual carriers of the mutation is not necessarily transmitted to their offspring. The advantage of a mind able to produce unusual associations can be limited by behavioural disadvantages, such as those observed in schizophrenic patients (but also in those suffering from manic-depression, who often have creative mental associations but a reduced reproductive potential). Even in the case of an overall advantage which outweighs any behavioural side effects, the creative memes themselves may not be transmitted to the other members of the group to which the mutated individual belongs.

11. Gabora shows clearly that other circumstances are also necessary if the memetic mind is to prevail. The use of an elaborate means of communication, the pre-existence of consolidated forms of socialization, and a body structure (arm, hand) which allows nature and the "real world" to be manipulated are a few of Gabora's illuminating examples of such external factors.

12. Memetic minds, therefore, do not prevail outside the groups which can benefit from their creative potential. The success of the memetic mind coincides with the success in competition for ecological niches of those groups in which a genetic mutation produces the right conditions for the existence of such a memetic mind.

13. The survival of the groups carrying the memetic mutation does not necessarily coincide with the overall reproductive success of the mutated genes. In a group it is sufficient for a small fraction of the constituent individuals to transmit the mutation to the following generations. The advantages for the individual (the ability to carry water, to use Gabora's example) are transmitted, by imitation or information exchange, to the other non-mutated members of the group, members who thus benefit indirectly from the creative potential of the mutated individuals. A broad treatise on selection by groups can be found in Wilson (1975, and Wilson & Sober, 1994).

14. A mutation capable of producing behavioural disorders (for example, as a consequence of mental representations, such as visual or auditory hallucinations, not deriving from actual environmental stimuli) can lead to an adaptive advantage only if it also produces effects which, beyond the disadvantage for the individual, lead to adaptive advantages for the group as a whole. An example might be the ability to create new words. The tendency to neologism, even bizarre neologism, is often observed among schizophrenic and manic-depressive patients (Arieti, 1974). The use of totally new words can result in communication problems, as is often the case with these patients, but it can also widen the semantic, and therefore conceptual, repertory of a group. If all plants with fruits had the same name it would be difficult to distinguish edible from non-edible fruits. When each plant has a different name, the collection, or separation of the fruits will be easier.

15. The complex but fascinating scenario proposed by Liane Gabora suggests that hypotheses treating the origin of culture as a process subject to selection can no longer avoid paying attention to the neurophysiological bases of brain functioning. Attention must also be paid to the genetic mechanisms which sustain the brains functioning, and set the limits within which consciousness can have its origins.


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Cornblatt, B.A. & Kellp, J.G. (1994): Impaired attention, genetics, and the pathophysiology of Schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 20: 31-46

Crow, T.J. (1995): Constraints on concepts of pathogenesis. Language and the speciation process as the key to the etiology of schizophrenia. Archives of General Psychiatry, 52: 1011-1014

Crow, T.J. (1997): Is schizophrenia the price that Homo sapiens pays for language? Schizophrenia Research, 28: 127-141

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Preti, A. & Miotto, P. (1997): Creativity, evolution and mental illnesses. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 1: on-line at, 1997c

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Wilson, D.S. & Sober, E. (1994): Reintroducing group selection to the human behavioral sciences. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 17: 585-654

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