When I was young, my grandmother would tell me dreamy stories about fairies who lived in her garden or made their homes in tiny openings in tall oak trees. Glitter was magic dust, and friendly insects had names and livelihoods. I adored her stories and longed to create similar ones, a passion I’ve carried with me throughout my career.
On a recent episode of “Good Morning America,” actress Kate Hudson spoke about her children’s knack for the arts, including singing and acting. “You realize when you have kids that there are certain things that are in their genes,” Hudson said. Her statement made me curious about the roots of my own creative aspirations and I wondered: Can creativity be inherited?
Your artistic skills might be as heritable as your eye color
John Paul Garrison, PsyD, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Roswell, Georgia, says research does indeed point to personality traits and variables being tied to genetics.
“Being artistic or creative is associated with the personality trait of being open to experiences,” Garrison says. “Some research suggests that there are neurobiological foundations for creative individuals. Based on all available information, it is very likely that the capacity for creativity is shaped by genetic influences –– it’s a complicated way of saying that creativity and artistic interests can almost certainly be inherited.”
Garrison explains that the idea of creativity being genetic is similar to the research surrounding personality disorders. Science once thought personality disorders were the result of environment or trauma. But now research suggests that genetics play a heavy role in disorders. In a study published in Journal of Personality, it was found that even though genetics and environment both contributed to the association between normal and abnormal personality traits, genetics appeared to play the greater role overall.
“The predominant reason normal and abnormal personality are linked to each other is because they are linked to the same underlying genetic mechanisms,” says Robert Krueger, PhD, who co-authored the study, in Monitor on Psychology.
The findings point then at the idea that while environment –– like a child who grows up with exposure to music –– might certainly influence a personality prone to creativity, it’s more heavily linked to the blood that runs through someone’s veins. That means that while I might have fallen in love with my grandmother’s knack for storytelling, I might not have made it my career path had creativity not already been in my gene pool.
Explaining creative biology, however, isn’t cut and dry
James T. Arnone, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Biology at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, says pinpointing the actual genes that determine creativity is complex.
“Take music creativity and talent, for example,” Arnone says. “Anyone who has played an instrument has heard the old colloquialism, ‘practice makes perfect.’ This is absolutely true, but we have to dig a bit deeper.”
Arnone says that certain heritable characteristics can be rather straightforward. But others — like the heritability of musical talent — prove to be more of a challenge. He points to that revealed links between genes that are involved with cognition, memory, and learning with musical phenotypes. These include ability and aptitude, listening, practice, and so forth. Another study using music found that the presence of one particular cluster of genes was directly related to musical creativity.
“There is much work to be done to fully characterize and understand how all of these components work together, but in this case, there is a clear heritable relationship,” Arnone says.
It runs in the family?
Beverly Solomon, 63, of Texas, says she always wondered about the scientific proof behind her creative interest. But she’s never wavered on its beginnings. Solomon’s mother was an award-winning fashion designer in the 1950s. Her mother’s father painted signs during World War II, and her mother would often lend him a helping hand.
“My mother raised me on the arts,” says Solomon, who now owns an international art and design firm. “As a child, she encouraged me to design my own clothes and we would make them together.”
Solomon’s mother enrolled her in summer art school at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. She eagerly read every fashion magazine made available to her. Once, she says, she even lied about her age so she could work in fashion at an upscale department store. Eventually, Solomon scored her first break in sales and marketing at the luxury fashion company Diane von Furstenberg.
At least in Solomon’s case, the old saying indeed hits close to home: Like mother, like daughter.
Like Solomon, I, too, wonder how my creative origin will influence my 2-year-old daughter’s path. Being raised in a family that fostered my creative intentions certainly had its bearings on my life’s work. My husband is a professional dancer-turned-professor and choreographer. So, it appears — at the very least — our daughter will have ample exposure to the arts.
But it’d seem that, according to science, our environments were simply the nest in which to grow something that was already innate. And the same might be true for my daughter, too.
Caroline Shannon-Karasik’s writing has been featured in several publications, including Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Prevention, VegNews, and Kiwi magazines, as well as SheKnows.com and EatClean.com. She’s currently writing a collection of essays. More can be found at carolineshannon.com. You can also visit her on Twitter or Instagram.