When I spoke at Princeton last year, I talked with neuroscientist Sam Wang, who told me about a project he did surveying incoming Princeton freshmen about mental illness in their families. He and his coauthor Benjamin Campbell found some interesting results, which they just published:
A link between intellect and temperament has long been the subject of speculation. . . . Studies of the artistically inclined report linkage with familial depression, while among eminent and creative scientists, a lower incidence of affective disorders is found. In the case of developmental disorders, a heightened prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) has been found in the families of mathematicians, physicists, and engineers. . . .
We surveyed the incoming class of 2014 at Princeton University about their intended academic major, familial incidence of neuropsychiatric disorders, and demographic variables. . . . Consistent with prior findings, we noticed a relation between intended academic majors and ASDs. Looking for relations between other neuropsychiatric disorders and academic interest we also noted a heightened prevalence of bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and substance abuse in the families of those pursuing the humanities. A composite score based on these four heritable disorders was strongly correlated with a student’s intended academic major. Thus, familial risk toward a spectrum of psychopathologies can predict propensity toward technical versus humanist interests.
When I spoke with Sam last year we discussed various ways to analyze the data as well as various interpretations of the results, but I don’t actually remember any of our conversation except for the bit where he described to me how they conducted their study.