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Family History of Psychiatric Disorders Shapes Intellectual Interests

Family History of Psychiatric Disorders Shapes Intellectual Interests Results of a survey published by Princeton University researchers suggest that a family history of psychiatric conditions, such as autism and depression, could influence the subjects a person finds engaging.

The Princeton researchers surveyed nearly 1,100 students from the university’s Class of 2014 early in their freshman year to learn which major they would choose based on their intellectual interests. The students were then asked to indicate the incidence of mood disorders, substance abuse or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in their family, including parents, siblings and grandparents.

Students interested in pursuing a major in the humanities or social sciences were twice as likely to report that a family member had a mood disorder or a problem with substance abuse.

Students with an interest in science and technical majors, on the other hand, were three times more likely to report a sibling with an ASD, a range of developmental disorders that includes autism and Asperger syndrome.

Senior researcher Sam Wang, Ph.D., an associate professor in Princeton’s Department of Molecular Biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, said that the survey — though not exhaustive nor based on direct clinical diagnoses — presents the idea that certain psychiatric conditions are more closely linked to a person’s intellectual interests than is currently supposed.

During the past several decades, Wang said, researchers have found that mood or behavior disorders are associated with a higher-than-average representation in careers related to writing and the humanities, while conditions related to autism exhibit a similar correlation with scientific and technical careers.

By focusing on poets, writers and scientists, however, those studies only include people who have advanced far in “artistic” or “scientific” pursuits and professions, potentially excluding a large group of people who have those interests but no particular aptitude or related career, Wang said.

He and lead author Benjamin Campbell selected incoming freshmen because the students are old enough to have defined interests, but are not yet on a set career path. (Princeton students do not declare a major until the end of sophomore year.)

“Until our work, evidence of a connection between neuropsychiatric disorders and artistic aptitude, for example, was based on surveying creative people, where creativity is usually defined in terms of occupation or proficiency in an artistic field,” Wang said.

“But what if there is a broader category of people associated with bipolar or depression, namely people who think that the arts are interesting? The students we surveyed are not all F. Scott Fitzgerald, but many more of them might like to read F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

As in past studies, Wang and Campbell suggest a genetic basis for their results. The correlation with interests and psychiatric conditions they observed implies that a common genetic path could lead relatives in similar directions, but with some people developing psychiatric disorders while their kin only possess certain traits of those conditions.

Those traits can manifest as preferences for and talents in certain areas, Wang said.

“Altogether, results of our study and those like it suggest that scientists should start thinking about the genetic roots of normal function as much as we discuss the genetic causes of abnormal function. This survey helps show that there might be common cause between the two,” Wang said.

“Everyone has specific individual interests that result from experiences in life, but these interests arise from a genetic starting point,” he continued. “This doesn’t mean that our genes determine our fate. It just means that our genes launch us down a path in life, leading most people to pursue specific interests and, in extreme cases, leading others toward psychiatric disorders.”

The study was published January 26 in the journal PLoS ONE.

Source: Princeton University

Family History of Psychiatric Disorders Shapes Intellectual Interests

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Family History of Psychiatric Disorders Shapes Intellectual Interests. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 28 Jan 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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