Creativity is a double edged sword:
Questions about madness and creativity
Creativity sure is a double edged sword. The extremely talented but extremely tormented artist or musician is a well known archetype in our culture, and has a strong presence in our historical canon. Sometimes it seems that the perhaps unusual behaviours of people considered to be artists can easily fall into the ‘eccentric and creative artist’ category, are more readily accepted, and are almost to be expected, whilst the unusual behaviours of those labelled with a mental illness fall into the ‘crazy’ and ‘pathological’ categories. When the brain processes observed in creativity and mental illness are considered side by side, there seem to be many similarities.
The difference between creativity and madness is an age old question, and for me it really brings the full meaning of both of these words into question. Attempting to define terms can help us re-frame something we took for granted as just ‘knowing’. For example, what is creativity? What is mental illness? Are they more culturally informed than we know? Are they mutually inclusive or exclusive? Do we have a cultural prejudice against those whose physiological make-up creates a strong difference in their way of being in the world? What if they were both just considered neuro-atypical behaviours compared to the average human being, and were therefore celebrated for difference like a brightly coloured and rare bird in the forest who sings a song no one has ever heard before? Where is the point where mental illness can have the effect of actually hindering creativity? Is art-making an instinctual way of coping with emotional disturbances and internal imbalances? Why are the models of care based on a sense that those with differences can be relieved of suffering by helping them become more ‘normal’? What if we started to re-frame our approach and beliefs towards both creativity and mental illness in terms of ‘making the most out of what you’ve got’? What if we approached mental illness more creatively? The questions are endless.
Pathologizing difference often only reinforces feelings of isolation, stigma, and that something is ‘wrong’ with the oneself. What if the particular ways our brains and bodies functioned were approached from a stance of celebrating diversity, and learning to manage and optimize one’s idiosyncratic needs? Both mental illness and creativity run rampant in my immediate family, and they seem to be inseperable. It’s interesting to note that during a bout of serious suffering due to emotional disturbances, one’s creativity also inevitably suffers. However, often creative acts can help us to come back from dark and scary places in the mind. It’s almost a chicken and egg scenario. Being a creative person is liable to drive you a bit mad, because you are constantly being driven by these forces of inspiration and are filled with strange visions and ideas for creations and a longing to express oneself. Being a bit mad is liable to force you into creative ways of dealing with the world, thereby enhancing one’s creative potential and abilities. If one’s brain is naturally moving in ways that would seem very creative or unusual to others, then there are many unique insights, ideas and observations a person could have that could very well affect the prejudices of perception that we take for granted. There is always this balance to strike between being propelled by creativity and pushed around by creativity.
Is the presence of suffering the main difference between creativity and mental illness? For I would argue that there is a near constant sense of this type of sublime suffering in making art- in attempting to express the inexpresible and finding a way to put down one’s visions and dreams into the world. And there is pain when inspiration doesn’t flow, too. The pain of longing, perhaps. There is an element of suffering in being very creative, just as there can be suffering with mental illness. Is there an element of choice in one’s creative suffering? Is there a choice of suffering in mental illness? Although mental illness is very real and causes very real suffering in a way that heightened creativity perhaps can not, suffering is an inevitable part of the human condition, whether one is very creative, mentally ill, or just plain old Jane ‘normal’ (although I am loathe to use that word without wanting to rip it to shreds at the same time). Often it seems that our collective societal approach to mental illness is based on our need to feel more comfortable around those with significant cognitive, emotional and behavioural differences, thereby adopting a medical model that attempts to bring statistical deviations back towards the average through the use of drugs and therapy.
The persistent feeling many people get that something is ‘wrong’ with us, and the tendency these days to label any unusual cluster of behaviours or experiences as disorders that must be righted thanks to the DSM and big pharma and other corporate agendas, are holding us back from embracing change, difference, the irrational and the unexpected. If only we collectively viewed difference as a gift rather than a a curse, embraced those parts of ourselves and others that are deemed different and dangerous as valuable, and bravely sought out new ways of connecting with and learning from those who are currently outcast and ostracized. We would all have to potential to become infinitely more creative and more compassionate by finding new ways to be and see and connect with one another and the world.
There are so many ways to collaborate with the unknown.
-Nicole, October 2012
Below are a few articles and tid-bits to keep the questions and dialogue going.
TED Talk: Ruby Wax: What’s so funny about mental illness?
“Diseases of the body garner sympathy, says comedian Ruby Wax — except those of the brain. Why is that? With dazzling energy and humor, Wax, diagnosed a decade ago with clinical depression, urges us to put an end to the stigma of mental illness.” Ruby Wax is a loud, funny woman — who spent much of her comedy career battling depression in silence. Now her work blends mental health advocacy and laughs.”
TED Talk: Temple Grandin: The world needs all kinds of minds
“Temple Grandin, diagnosed with autism as a child, talks about how her mind works — sharing her ability to “think in pictures,” which helps her solve problems that neurotypical brains might miss. She makes the case that the world needs people on the autism spectrum: visual thinkers, pattern thinkers, verbal thinkers, and all kinds of smart geeky kids.
Through groundbreaking research and the lens of her own autism, Temple Grandin brings startling insight into two worlds.”
TED Talk: Joshua Walters: On being just crazy enough
“At TED’s Full Spectrum Auditions, comedian Joshua Walters, who’s bipolar, walks the line between mental illness and mental “skillness.” In this funny, thought-provoking talk, he asks: What’s the right balance between medicating craziness away and riding the manic edge of creativity and drive?
Joshua Walters is a bipolar comedian whose work explores language, creativity, beatboxing and madness”
Creativity ‘closely entwined with mental illness’
By Michelle Roberts Health editor, BBC News online
“Creativity is often part of a mental illness, with writers particularly susceptible, according to a study of more than a million people. Writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, the Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute found. They were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves.The dancers and photographers were also more likely to have bipolar disorder.
As a group, those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people.But they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism, the Journal of Psychiatric Research reports.
Lead researcher Dr Simon Kyaga said the findings suggested disorders should be viewed in a new light and that certain traits might be beneficial or desirable.For example, the restrictive and intense interests of someone with autism and the manic drive of a person with bipolar disorder might provide the necessary focus and determination for genius and creativity.Similarly, the disordered thoughts associated with schizophrenia might spark the all-important originality element of a masterpiece.
Dr Kyaga said: “If one takes the view that certain phenomena associated with the patient’s illness are beneficial, it opens the way for a new approach to treatment.
“In that case, the doctor and patient must come to an agreement on what is to be treated, and at what cost.
“In psychiatry and medicine generally there has been a tradition to see the disease in black-and-white terms and to endeavour to treat the patient by removing everything regarded as morbid.”
Beth Murphy, head of information at Mind, said bipolar disorder personality traits could be beneficial to those in creative professions, but it may also be that people with bipolar disorder are more attracted to professions where they can use their creative skills.
“It is important that we do not romanticise people with mental health problems, who are too often portrayed as struggling creative geniuses. We know that one in four people will be diagnosed with a mental health problem this year and that these individuals will come from a range of different backgrounds, professions and walks of live. Our main concern is that they get the information and support that they need and deserve.”
Must One Risk Madness to Achieve Genius?
Must one risk getting lost in the sea of madness in order to reach the lone island of genius?
“There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.” — Salvador Dali
“Must one risk getting lost in the sea of madness in order to reach the lone island of genius? While not necessarily mad, creative minds are often chaotic, untethered and unhinged. These thought processes enable a creative person to bring together lots of seemingly disparate streams of information in a unique way not immediately obvious to those grounded in “reality”. Which creates an interesting paradox: How can creative geniuses simultaneously be mad and brilliant? Only recently, however, have scientists been able to find out both what connects madness and brilliance, and what separates them. It turns out the key to this riddle is a deeper understanding of the most psychologically important dimension of human personality: Openness/Intellect.
Among the “Big Five” personality traits, the Openness/Intellect domain has been the most difficult for psychologists to describe. The problem is that it is such an all-encompassing domain, with psychological linkages to human art, aesthetic interests, unconventionality, imagination, creativity, perceived intelligence, and intellectual curiosity. While the unifying force of the domain is a drive for cognitive exploration, recent research conducted by myself and my colleagues (including Colin DeYoung and Jeremy Gray, who I worked with in graduate school) show that Intellect can be separated from Openness, both behaviorally and neurologically. Intellect is more related to exploration and engagement with abstract or semantic forms of cognition, whereas Openness is more related to engagement with perceptual and sensory experiences. This cognitive division has posed some problems for psychologists trying to understand this broad domain, because intellectual forms of cognition are mixed in with more intuitive and sensory forms of cognition. This situation has created a paradox: “intelligence” (as measured by I.Q. tests) and “madness” (as measured by tests of a mild form of schizophrenia called schizotypy) are negatively related to each other yet are positively related to the overall Openness/Intellect domain. How can this be?
In a recent series of studies, Colin G. DeYoung, Rachael G. Grazioplene, and Jordan B. Peterson set out to resolve this paradox. Let’s take a tour through their findings and theory. There’s a lot to get through, but stick with me. I promise it’ll be worth it!
First let’s cover some terms. Schizophrenia is a debilitating mental illness that affects roughly 1% of the population and involves altered states of consciousness and “abnormal” perceptual experiences. Schizotypy, which is a watered-down version of schizophrenia, consists of a constellation of personality traits that are evident in some degree in everyone. Schizotypy can be broken down into two types: “positive” schizotypal traits such as unusual perceptual experiences and magical beliefs and “negative” schizotypal traits such as physical and social anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) and introversion. Researchers have been trying to figure out where exactly to place schizotypy in the Big Five structure of personality. Along the way, they have tried renaming positive schizotypy to such wonderful labels as “Oddity“, “Peculiarity“, and “Experiental Permeability“. Apophenia is a component of positive schizotypy, and involves a general human propensity to see meaningful patterns when they don’t really exist. Apophenia is a natural part of human nature. Some examples include wearing good luck charms, seeing Jesus in toast, or mistaking random sounds for someone calling your name. This can get more serious, such as seen in compulsive gamblers, but we all lie somewhere on the apophenia spectrum.
Now we’ve defined our terms, we can get to the good stuff. DeYoung and his colleagues decided that when looking at normal human variation, “apophenia” is a desirable replacement for the term “positive schizotypy”. Apophenia is more descriptive of the actual phenomenon, and has more neutral connotations (schizotypy is associated with ideas of schizophrenia). They note that psychologists just haven’t done a good job of measuring the apophenia side of cognition. Makes me wonder why psychologists have had a bias against apophenia-type thought (perhaps because apophenia is antithetical to good science?). Whatever the reason for the neglect, DeYoung and his colleagues predict that if more measures of apophenia are administered, apophenia will reveal itself in the Openness/Intellect domain.
And that’s what they found. Across two studies, they administered a very large battery of personality questionnaires and a measure of I.Q. to well-educated middle-class Americans and Canadians, none of which were suffering from schizophrenia-spectrum disorders (in which apophenia is particularly severe). Therefore, their study was able to look at normal human variation in both intelligence and apophenia. Turns out, the key to resolving this longstanding complex paradox all comes down to a simplex.
The Paradoxical Simplex
A simplex is an arrangement of variables along a single dimension. The simplex describes, in a visual-spatial way, the strength of the relationships among the variables. Here is their beautiful “padoxical simplex”:
As you can see, intelligence and apophenia are on opposite ends of the simplex. Intelligence is all the way at the top, and apophenia is all the way at the bottom, both separated by lots of different tests. In other words, even though they live on the same planet, they are miles away from each other. At the same time, all of the measures that appear on the simplex are positively related to the overall Openness/Intellect domain. Thus, the paradoxical nature of the simplex. As the researchers note, “some forces cause intelligence and apophenia to vary together, whereas other forces cause them to vary inversely“.
One system that is probably acting on the entire Openness/Intellect domain is the dopaminergic system. Dopamine has mostly activating effects on behavior and cognition and contributes to approach behavior, sensitivity to rewards, and breadth of thinking. Dopamine has shown linkages to Extraversion, positive affect, Openness to Experience, broad thinking, and mental flexibility. Some evidence even suggests that variations in two genes involved in the dopaminergic system is indeed related to Openness/Intellect. That’s what brings them together…
What forces pull intelligence away from apophenia?
As you can see in the simplex, an excellent marker of intelligence appears to be the “Need for Cogntion” scale, whereas an excellent marker of apophenia appears to be the “Absorption” scale. Which makes sense, considering the absorption scale include items such as:
“I like to watch cloud shapes change in the sky“
“Sometimes I feel as if my mind could envelope the whole world.”
“Sometimes I experience things as if they were doubly real.”
“Sometimes I am immersed in nature or in art that I feel as if my whole state of consciousness has somehow been temporarily changed.”
“Things that might seem meaningless to others make sense to me.”
Far out, man.
Interestingly, fantasy proneness was also a strong marker of apophenia. This is consistent with other research showing that fantasy proneness and daydreaming is not pathological, but a normal varying trait in the general population. So the difference between the two poles are clear. Those who lean toward the intelligence end of the simplex like thinking, and live in a world of ideas and competence, whereas those who lean toward the apophenia end enjoy patterns and fantasy. So what cognitive mechanisms separate the two from each other?
It is likely that Intellect, but not Openness, is influenced by dopaminergic projections particularly to the prefrontal cortex, considering that dopamine is crucial for working memory and other cognitive functions of that brain region. Working memory is important for distinguishing our current mental representations from the outside world. Some even argue that working memory is the seat of consciousness. What about Openness? While working on my doctoral dissertation, I found that implicit learning– the ability to automatically learn covariation patterns in sensory information through experience– was related to Openness but not Intellect. In other words, people differed in their ability to soak up patterns from experience and this ability wasn’t related to I.Q. or an intellectual cognitive style but was related to Openness. In the current study, DeYoung (who was a co-author with me on the implicit learning paper) and his colleagues note that our human capacity for implicit learning may lead to overinterpretation of coincidence and sensory noise as meaningful patterns. Prior research has in fact shown that the tendency toward magical ideation (e.g., belief in telepathy) is positively related to the identification of meaningful patterns in noisy or random visual information.
While implicit learning is also related to the dopaminergic system, there are additional forces that cause intelligence to pull apart from apophenia. The researchers propose three possible mechanisms to explain the antagonism found between intelligence and apophenia:
1. Dopamine’s effect on the prefrontal cortex exhibits a U-shaped function: too much dopamine, or too little dopamine, and cognition is impaired. There also appears to be some degree of antagonismbetween dopamine levels in the prefrontal cortex (which are associated with working memory) and dopamine levels in the striatum (which are associated with implicit learning and schizophrenia), with elevated levels of striatal dopamine often associated with reduced dopamine in the prefrontal cortex. DeYoung and his colleagues speculate that dopamine may increase apophenia at sufficiently high levels while at the same time disrupting cognitive functions such as working memory that are associated with intelligence.
2. Intelligence and apophenia are associated in opposite directions with the integrity of white matter tracts. White matter consists of axons surrounded by fatty insulation called myelination and helps communicate between different regions of the brain. Intelligence and working memory is positively related to white matter integrity in tracts within the prefrontal and parietal cortices. In contrast, white matter tracts in the frontal lobes show reduced integrity in those with schizophrenia as well as those in the general population scoring high in positive schizotypy. Interestingly, a recent study conducted on subjects high in intelligence found that both Openness/Intellect and divergent thinking (the ability to generate multiple creative responses) was related to decreased white matter integrity in the same areas as seen in those with schizophrenia. Their findings suggest that even though reduced white matter integrity may be a sign of reduced intelligence and increased mental illness, somereduction of frontal white matter integrity may enable mental flexibility and innovative cognition in the general population. The researchers of that study also suggest that white matter integrity in the frontal lobes may be a factor predisposing a person toward one end of the Openness/Intellect simplex or the other.
3. Lateralization of functions may be another factor that may pull Intellect and Openness in opposite directions. At the gross level of analysis, our left hemisphere specializes in functions relating to serial logical operations, whereas the right hemisphere specializes in functions related to global pattern recognition. Intelligence is associated with the structure and function of many different brain regions in the frontal and parietal lobes, but more associations are typically found in the left hemisphere. In contrast, schizophrenia is typically associated with reduced left hemisphere dominance. Some psychologists argue that elevated levels of dopamine in the right hemisphere produce the magical thinking and loose associations associated with positive schizotypy. Based on these earlier studies, DeYoung and his colleagues suggest therefore that a bias toward dominance of the left or right hemisphere may predispose people toward expressing traits at one end of the simplex or the other.
Now we can bring all of this together to look at associations with creativity. Prior research has shown that those scoring high in Openness (but not Intellect) report having more dreams and more vivid dreams than those scoring low in Openness. As I just reviewed, dopamine is associated with Openness. Turns out, dopamingergic projections to the cortex are necessary for dreaming as well. DeYoung and his colleageus suggest that “dreaming may be, at least in part, dopamingergically driven cogniitve exploration similar to that associated with Openness/Intellect in waking“. In other words, people high in Openness are always dreaming!
If this is so, it can explain a potential link between Openness and creativity. Studies have found that sleep and dreaming inspires creative insight, and people who have creative insights tend to show brain activations more in the right hemisphere. Therefore, Openness appears to be supported by dopamine surges to the right hemisphere, and these biological mechanisms are conducive to creativity, working hard day and night to inspire insights for those high in Openness.
Another possible linkage between Openness and creavitiy may come through absorption. In a recent study, Nelson and Rawlings had a sample of 100 artists from a wide range of artistic fields (including music, visual arts, theatre and literature) report aspects of their personality, their experiences of creativity and their levels of “postitive” schizotypal traits including absorption. Turns out, those reporting higher levels of engagement in the creative experience also reported higher levels of absorption and Openness. Absorption is related to flow– the mental state of being completely present and fully immersed in a task. Flow is important for creativity, and but is not related to intelligence.
Of course, too much apophenia can be dangerous. Misidentify the structure of reality too frequently, and you’re in danger of dipping too deep into madness. The important aspect for creativity appears to be the mental balance between both extremes of Intellect and Openness. Research shows a U-shaped function for the effect of indicators of schizotypy on creative achievement. Too few indicators of schizotypy or full-fledged schizophrenia, and creative achievement is impaired. In “The Genetics of Creativity: A Serendipitous Assemblage of Madness“, Andrea Kuszewski presents the following graph to illustrate this point:
This mirrors the U-shaped function found for dopamine’s effect on cognition. There may be an optimal balance between prefrontal dopamine and striatal dopamine for creativity. But a couple sprinkles of schizotypy may be necessary for mental flexibility, innovation and discovery.
This may be why the genes for Openness remain in the human gene pool. While full-blown schizophrenia is associated with reduced reproductive success, milder indicators of schizophrenia such as apophenia may be conducive to creativity and increased reproductive success. Randolph Nesse describes the relationship between Openness and fitness as a “fitness cliff”, with the adaptive advantage of Openness increasing up to a point, after which fitness falls off the cliff. When apophenia is too severe, behaviors become maladaptive and too bizarre for potential mates. But mild levels are conducive to creativity, and functional creativity that isn’t too bizarre is sexually attractive.
Daniel Nettle and Helen Clegg found that apophenia was positively related to a higher number of sexual partners for both men and women, and this relationship was explained by artistic creative activity. Similarly, in a more recent study conducted by Helen Cleff, Daniel Nettle, and Dorothy Miell, they found that more successful male artists (who are presumably higher in apophenia) had more sexual partners than less successful male artists (the picture to the left is South America-born German artist, Atom Heart).
Intelligence appears to be the key ingredient keeping apophenia in check. As DeYoung and his colleages note,
“Intelligence may compensate for the overinclusive pattern recognition associated with apophenia, diminishing the attendant risk for schizophrenia. In fact, it may be precisely high Openness with insufficient intelligence that produces severe apophenia. It might even be that Intellect and Openness covary in part because Intellect has been selected by evolution to occur with high Openness, so as to avoid the maladaptive drift into severe apophenia.”
Which leads us to the question you’ve all been waiting for…
Must One Risk Madness to Achieve Genius?
DeYoung and his colleagues close their article with the following:
“Genius requires penetrating insight into reality, whereas madness is confusion about reality. Nonetheless, both madness and genius appear likely to be positively related to the broad trait of Openness/Intellect. Without the tendency to perceive patterns that is fundamental to Openness, Intellect may by unlikely to lead to the creativity required for genius. Perhaps, then, genius is most likely to emerge given the combination of high Intellect and high Openness, and one must risk madness to achieve genius.”
Likewise, in “The Essential Psychopathology of Creativity”, Andrea Kuszewski notes:
“Were it not for those “disordered” genes, you wouldn’t have extremely creative, successful people. Being in the absolute middle of every trait spectrum, not too extreme in any one direction, makes you balanced, but rather boring. The tails of the spectrum, or the fringe, is where all the exciting stuff happens. Some of the exciting stuff goes uncontrolled and ends up being a psychological disorder, but some of those people with the traits that define Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, ADHD, and other psychological conditions, have the fortunate gift of high cognitive control paired with those traits, and end up being the creative geniuses that we admire, aspire to be like, and desperately need in this world.”
The paradox is solved. In the general population, Openness is positively correlated with Intellect, but the correlation is far from perfect. Those who are extremely high in both Openness and Intellect form a small subset of the total population, but they may be the ones who are most likely to leave their stamp on posterity.
Must one risk madness to achieve genius? The answer appears to be yes, with one very important caveat: you must also have the Intellect to make sure you don’t completely lose your grip on reality.”
© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman.
The Times has an interesting review of two new books that discuss the oft cited link between mental illness and artistic creativity. It’s all too easy to indulge in cliched overgeneralizations about the thin line separating madness and genius, but the reality is that true mental illness is rarely conducive to acts of creation. Virginia Woolf, for instance, couldn’t write when she was experiencing one of her “episodes”: the onset of depression was “like a death,” she wrote. Nevertheless, as Woolf’s journals make clear, her writing was still profoundly influenced by her mental illness. Here is I how describe Woolf in my book:
Woolf’s writing style was deeply rooted in her own experience of the brain. She was mentally ill. All her life, she suffered from periodic nervous breakdowns, those horrible moments when her depression became suffocating. As a result, Woolf lived in fear of her own mind, exquisitely sensitive to its fevered “vibrations.” Introspection was her only medicine. “My own psychology interests me,” she confessed to her journal. “I intend to keep full notes of my ups and downs for my private information. And thus objectified, the pain and shame become at once much less. When all else failed, she used her sardonic humor to blunt the pain: “I feel my brains, like a pear, to see if it’s ripe; it will be exquisite by September.” And while she complained to E.M. Forster and others about her doctors and their syrups, about the pain and torpor of being forced to lie in bed, she also acknowledged the strange utility of her illness. Her incurable madness–this “whirring of wings in the brain”–was, in some ways, strangely transcendental: “Not that I haven’t picked up something from insanities and all the rest. Indeed, I suspect they’ve done instead of religion.”
Woolf never recovered. Her constant state of reflection, her wariness for hints of the return of her devastating depression, left an indelible scar on her writing. “Nerves” is one of her favorite words. Its medical varieties–neurosis, neurasthenia, nervous breakdown, neuroasthenic–continually enter her prose, their sharp, scientific pang contradicting the suppleness of her character’s internal soliloquies. In Woolf’s diary, notes on form were always interwoven with comments on headaches.
In other words, Woolf’s mental illness forced her to think about her mind, which fueled her modernist writing style. But the illness itself was an obstacle: she wrote in spite of it, not because of it.
That said, there are some interesting connections between schizotypal individuals – schizotypy is a mental condition that resembles schizophrenia, albeit with far less severe symptoms – and creativity, at least as measured in the psychology lab. Consider this study, which looked at schizotypy and insight problem solving. (Solving such problems requires people to “restructure the problem space,” which is a genre of creative thought.) The researchers found that individuals with a high degree of schizotypy show better performance on a set of insight problems relative to individuals with low schizotypy, but not on a set of incremental problems that required focused goal-related thinking. In other words, a little bit of madness did lead to a more creative problem-solving process. (Other studies have linked schizotypy to a right-hemisphere bias…)
And then there’s the audacious hypothesis of Robert Sapolsky, who argues that one of the sources of modern religion is schizotypy. (Personally, I’ve always found the obsessive-compulsive disorder explanation for religion a little more convincing. Martin Luther was clearly OCD – that’s why he liked to wash his hands so much. Or look at Leviticus: that Biblical book contains one bizarre rule after another.) Anyways, here is Sapolsky, arguing that you have to be the right kind of crazy in order to see a burning bush, or believe that the loud voice in your head is actually the voice of God:
What you find with schizotypals is what is called metamagical thinking, a very strong interest in new-age beliefs, science fiction, fantasy, religion, but in a very concrete, literal form, a very fundamentalist style. Somebody walking on water is not a metaphor. Somebody rising from the dead is not a metaphor; this is reported, literal fact.
Now we have to ask our evolutionary question: “Who are the schizotypals throughout 99% of human history?” And in the 1930s, decades before the word “schizotypal” even existed, anthropologists already had the answer.
It’s the shamans. It’s the medicine men. It’s the medicine women. It’s the witch doctors. In the 1930s an anthropologist named Paul Radin first described it as “shamans being half mad,” shamans being “healed madmen.” This fits exactly. It’s the shamans who are moving separate from everyone else, living alone, who talk with the dead, who speak in tongues, who go out with the full moon and turn into a hyena overnight, and that sort of stuff. It’s the shamans who have all this metamagical thinking.
Creativity, the Arts, and Madness
A brief, historical review of the alleged association between creativity and madness is followed by highlights from recent research in psychiatry and clinical psychology that address this relationship.
The precise nature of this link is explored from the perspectives of several disciplines, and implications for the creative process in gifted education are discussed.
Creativity is defined as the production of something both new and valued. Madness is defined as self destructive deviant behavior.
The belief that madness is linked with creative thinking has been held since ancient times. It is a widely popular notion. “Deviant behavior, whether in the form of eccentricity or worse, is not only associated with persons of genius or high-level creativity, but it is frequently expected of them.” (Rothenberg, 1990, p. 149).
Since the time of the Greek philosophers, those who wrote about the creative process emphasized that creativity involves a regression to more primitive mental processes, that to be creative requires a willingness to cross and recross the lines between rational and irrational thought.
What is the evidence that there is a link between creativity and madness? What account can be given for this link, biologically and psychologically? And what does this association suggest for related research and our understanding of creative people?
The aim of this article is to describe what creativity and madness have in common and to discuss implications for creative thinking in gifted education. The article begins with a brief, historical overview of the topic, followed by some highlights of studies on creativity and mental illness. Explanations for the possible link between creativity and madness are then addressed.
Creativity is defined as the production of something that is both new and valued and madness is defined as a self destructive deviation in behavior. The article concludes with a discussion of implications for the creative process in gifted education and questions for further research.
The notion that inspiration requires regression and dipping into irrationality in order to access unconscious symbols and thought has been popular across disciplines for hundreds of years. Plato said that creativity is a “divine madness…a gift from the gods”.
Seneca recorded Aristotle as having said, “No great genius was without a mixture of insanity” (Langsdorf, 1900, pp. 90-91).
One of Shakespeare’s characters says, “The lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact,” and Marcel Proust said, “Everything great in the world is created by neurotics. They have composed our masterpieces, but we don’t consider what they have cost their creators in sleepless nights, and worst of all, fear of death.”
More recently, at the end of the last century, physicians were very interested in the physical causes of mental illness as well as in the genetic causes of genius.
The physician, Lombroso (1889), wrote about the connections he believed to exist between genius and madness. Acceptance of his ideas persisted well into the 20th century until Lewis Terman’s (1925) data suggested that people of high ability exhibited less incidence of mental illness and adjustment problems than average.
But at the same time that Terman was beginning to publish the first round of his results, Freud was formulating his psychoanalytic concepts in Vienna. Freud analyzed literary works and the lives of eminent creative people because, “He believed that great works of art and literature contained universal psychological truths and that the study of artists’ and writers’ lives would reveal basic psychological truths in persons of heightened sensibility and talent.” (Rothenberg, 1990, p. 80).
Since the time of Freud’s analyses, other psychoanalysts and psychologists have continued to conduct scores of pathographies, diagnostic analyses of the works or lives of eminent creative people in an effort to improve our understanding of the relationship between creativity and madness (Jamison, 1993; Panter, et. al, 1995).
In this century the clinical literature, particularly the psychoanalytic writing, is full of theories about the relationship between creativity and emotional illness (Feldman, 1989; Greenacre, 1957; Jamison, 1993; Lowenfeld, 1941; Niederland, 1976; Panter, Panter, Virshup and Virshup, 1995; Pickford, 1981; Richards, 1981; Rothenberg, 1990).
A long-held view in psychiatry is that artistic endeavors heal the artist, whose work is then healing to others. It is important to note that the studies tend to focus on a subpopulation of artists in particular: writers, poets, and visual artists.
There are numerous examples of artists who used their work to save their minds. For example, Anne Sexton, who was institutionalized for her psychosis wrote, “Poetry led me by the hand out of madness” (cited in Jamison, 1993, p. 122) and Jackson Polluck’s large canvas drippings have been viewed by several investigators as an attempt to organize his chaotic inner life (Feldman, 1989; Virshup, 1995; Wyshup, 1970).
A basic premise of the expressive therapies (e.g. art, music, and dance therapy, etc.) is that writing, composing, or drawing, etc., is a means to self-understanding, emotional stability and resolution of conflict. Creativity provides a way to structure or reframe pain. This, perhaps, is what much good comedy is about.
Findings From Studies on Creativity and Mental Illness
In the last two decades there have been numerous systematic investigations into the alleged relationship between creativity and madness. Albert Rothenberg, Kay Jamison, and Nancy Andreasen are a sample of investigators who have explored this topic.
What do creativity and madness have in common? Observations from psychiatric studies suggest that there are three characteristics common to both high creative production and madness. These are disturbance of mood, certain types of thinking processes, and tolerance for irrationality.
Disturbance of mood appears to be present in a high percentage of talented visual artists (Andreasen, 1988; Jamison,1989; 1993; Richards, 1981). Mental disorders in which the primary feature is a mood disturbance include major depression, dysthymia and bipolar disorder (also popularly known as manic-depressive illness).
There seems to be a greatly increased rate of depression, manic-depressive illness, and suicide in eminent creative people, writers and artists especially.
The incidence of mental illness among creative artists is higher than in the population at large. Some studies link creativity with bipolar disorders specifically (Andreasen, 1988; Jamison, 1989; Richards; 1989), and within the field of academic psychiatry, there has recently been serious acceptance of the association between creativity and the mood disturbance, hypomania (Jamison, 1993).
Table1 lists a sample of eminent persons who are believed to have had a mood disorder. Many of them committed suicide.
It is well recognized that moods do have an impact on personality. Bipolar disorder is a recurrent mood disturbance characterized by cyclical, extreme mood swings that include manic states. Mania is a distinct period (at least a week) during which the individual demonstrates a euphoric high or irritable mood.
“The expansive quality of the mood is characterized by unceasing and indiscriminate enthusiasm for interpersonal, sexual, or occupational interactions” (APA, 1994, p. 328). Grandiosity or uncritical self confidence is often observed. During a manic state, thoughts race, sometimes faster than can be articulated.
There is a great increase in goal-directed activity. Manic individuals may write volumes, paint numerous canvases, or engage in multiple activities simultaneously. The level of activity is so high that it results in impairment of functioning, or hospitalization may be necessary to protect the individual.
Jamison’s (1993) work suggests that periods of creative productivity are preceded by an elevated mood. It is as if certain types of moods open up thought, allowing for greater creativity. She (1993) states that depressions may have an important cognitive influence on the creative process.
Depression may slow the pace, put thoughts and feelings into perspective; and eliminate excess or irrelevant ideas, increasing focus and allowing structuring of new ideas. In other words, it may be that the cognitive processes associated with certain moods are the link between creativity and madness.
Perhaps the most interesting finding from clinical studies is that there are similarities in the thought processes of manic, psychotic, and highly creative people (Prentky, 1980; Rothenberg, 1990; Rothenberg & Burkhardt, 1984).
Psychotic thinking rarely turns into creative production without some abatement of the psychosis, but there is evidence that creative processes sometimes turn into psychotic ones. Albert Rothenberg is clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard and has served for the past twenty-five years as principal investigator of the Studies in the Creative Process.
One focus of his research has been the relationship of creativity to psychosis. “I was at one time extraordinarily puzzled and piqued about the fact that so many outstanding persons also suffered from some form of psychosis (1990, p. 6).
The major findings to come out of my research are that there are particular and specific thought processes used by creative people during the process of creation; this applies to the entire spectrum of disciplines, areas and media.
These special thought processes are the features that distinguish creative people from the rest of us. Although very complicated in structure and in psychological function, there is little doubt that these particular processes are crucial to outstanding creative attainment (1990, p. 11).
Specifically, Rothenberg’s research concludes that translogical types of thinking characterize both psychotics and highly creatives. Translogical thinking, he explains, is a type of conceptualizing in which the thinking processes transcend the common modes of ordinary logical thinking.
It involves what Rothenberg calls janusian and homospatial processes. Janusian thinking is a conscious process of combining paradoxical or antagonistic objects into a single entity. Homospatial process is the essence of good metaphor. It means to superimpose or bring together multiple, discrete objects.
Rothenberg states that janusian thinking tends to occur in the beginning stages of creative work when ideas are generated, and homospatial thinking characterizes the development of the creative ideas. He acknowledges that there are similarities between the primary process thinking of psychotics and translogical thinking, and that there are some subtle distinctions.
“There is thus a thin but definite borderline between the most advanced and healthy type of thinking – creative thinking – and the most impoverished and pathological types of thinking – psychotic processes” (p. 12).
Other researchers have noted cognitive similarities. Drs. Andreasen, Stevens, and Powers (1975) investigated conceptual overinclusiveness (i.e. the tendency to combine things into categories that blur conceptual boundaries) in a sample of writers, manic depressives and schizophrenics.
They found that the conceptual styles of only the first two groups were similar, with a difference being that the writers had more control over their thought processes than did the manic-depressives.
Kay Jamison’s research (1989; 1993) also supports the idea that there is a cognitive link between creativity and madness. She notes that many of the cognitive changes that characterize mania and hypomania are also typical of creativity: restlesness, grandiosity, irritability, intensified sensory systems, quickening of thought processes, and intense feeling.
“Two aspects of thinking in particular are pronounced in both creative and hypomanic thought: fluency, rapidity, and flexibility of thought on the one hand, and the ability to combine ideas or categories of thought in order to form new and original connections on the other” (1993, p. 105).
It appears that the potential for creativity is enhanced by the cognitive changes that occur within some mental states. We don’t as yet understand the chemical and anatomical pathways responsible for the cognitive changes that take place during creative and manic states.
Finally, insights concerning the relationship between creativity and madness come also from artists themselves. Their reflections and observations about themselves and their work suggest that they have a very high tolerance for irrationality or deviance. In life, creation and destruction are closely related.
Many artists report that their motivation for engaging in their creative endeavors is to work through, release, or better understand their own destructive urges.
The life and suicides of Sylvia Plath and Jackson Polluck exemplify how thin the line can be between destruction and creation. Rothenberg (1990) hypothesizes that this line is crossed, from creativity to madness, when the creative expression is used primarily to control hostility rather than to create.
“Just as a need to control interferes with turning destructiveness into creation in art, so it interferes with turning self-destructive feelings into a process of self-creation in life” (p. 73).
Additionally, many artists personally attest to one of the most widely accepted associations between creativity and madness – the connection between what is learned from personal suffering to round out meaning and depth in the creative work. The poet, John Berryman for example, described the role of pain in his work:
In summary, there is evidence of a link between creativity and madness, especially within the subpopulation of writers, poets, and visual artists. There is a higher incidence of creatively gifted people among certain mental disorders than in the general population (Andreasen 1988; Jamison, 1989; 1993; Richards, 1989).
There seems to be an increased rate of suicide in eminent creative people. Many of the cognitive processes that characterize creative writing also characterize certain mood disorders. The conceptual style of writers and manic-depressives has been found to be similar.
And the personal accounts of many creative writers and visual artists testify to their struggle with psychological problems. These findings suggest that the line between creativity and madness is a fine one, and probably permeable.
The common ground between creativity and mental illness appears to be intrapsychic conflict. Noting a few exceptions (e.g., Peter Paul Rubens), most creative people produce less during calm times in their lives (Berman, 1995). Artists themselves argue that they strive to keep contact with their primitive selves because it is from their core self that they draw the energy and inspiration needed to do their best work.
But many mental health professionals would propose that to wrestle often with the primitive self is like walking the edge between sanity and insanity. What implications does the research have for educational practices?
There do appear to be psychological risks associated with creative giftedness and with the pursuit of exceptional creative achievement. Teachers and counselors should be aware of the vulnerability that can be associated with creative talent.
They can help students and parents guard against a too ready acceptance of the popular notion that deviant or destructive behaviors are the sine qua non of outstanding creative achievement. Suffering, or mental breakdown, should not be accepted as a likely consequence for creative production. Neither research or history supports that view.
At the same time, it is probably important that those working with the creatively gifted be willing to tolerate a higher degree of irrationality or deviance since such behaviors are more common among these individuals.
Although we should not ignore the strong association of certain types of psychological problems with creative production, neither should we ignore the observation that for every disturbed creative individual noted there are many more healthy creative individuals.
Educators need to understand and accept that the creative process does often arouse considerable anxiety, which may interfere with production. The teacher who can anticipate this possibility and who can make accomodations that support the student in reducing anxiety will promote the student’s achievement.
It would also be helpful if school personnel were at least aware that the thought processes of high creatives and those of manics or psychotics are similar on the surface, but very different foundationally.
Teachers and parents might advocate for acceptance of translogical modes of thinking, but not encourage the widely popular pairing of creative achievement with destructive deviant behaviors.
The research also suggests that differentiated emotional support should be available to students who are in pursuit of superior creative achievement. Educators should increase awareness among students and their parents of the psychological risks common to the pursuit of superior creative achievement and assist them in developing strategies to minimize or prevent harm (Jamison, 1993; 1995; Markova, 1994; Rothenberg, 1990).
Both by their nature and by their identification with eminent artists, creatively gifted individuals may put themselves at risk for serious emotional disturbance. Specific assistance in managing mood vacillations may be helpful.
Self-care strategies designed for the artistic temperament may be beneficial in minimizing the damage that can occur when the line between rationality and irrationality is crossed and recrossed.
There are several resources that describe strategies for self-care. For example, David Wexler’s Program for Innovative Self-Management (PRISM) is described in his text, The Adolescent Self: Strategies for Self-management, Self-soothing, and Self-esteem in Adolescents (Wexler,1991).
In addition, he has written two workbooks of exercises designed to help adolescents who are having problems with self-destructive behaviors, anxiety, mood swings, aggression, substance abuse, and eating disorders (Wexler,1991;1993).
Several resources exist that describe exercises that could be used by experienced teachers or school guidance personnel to promote emotional health and prevent more serious problems among creatively gifted youth (Davis, McKay, & Eshelman, 1982; Ilardo, 1992; McMahon, 1992).
There are also resources describing exercises that might be especially relevant to students who are aspiring writers, actors, dancers and musicians (Heckler, 1985; Markova, 1994; Progoff, 1975).
Those training and teaching creatively gifted students should have in their referral network mental health professionals who can distinguish superior creative thinking from crazy, psychotic thinking and who can identify serious mood disturbances.
The creative process is a mystery. We can know about pieces of it, but we are unlikely to unravel all of it. Many questions remain unanswered.
If there is a significant correlation between creative genius and mental disorders, how do we explain it? Do mood disorders lead to creativity?
Is there something about wrestling with the primitive core or with our moods, that facilitates the creative process? Or is there a vulnerability that accompanies creative thought?
How do we explain the exceptions – those who achieve greatness and lead healthy lives? Are people with certain types of difficulties (e.g., mood disorders, substance abuse) more attracted to the creative fields than are people without such difficulties?
Is there something about the creative process itself that over time, contributes to disintegration? Or are the struggles for health the result of the cumulative effects of repeated interactions with others who lack understanding or tolerance?
Eminent Creative People with Probable Mood Disorders
John Berryman Honore De Balzac
Hans Christian Andersen Robert Burns
Samuel Clemens Lord Byron
Charles Dickens Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Isak Dinesen Emily Dickinson
Ralph Waldo Emerson T.S. Eliot
William Faulkner Victor Hugo
F. Scott Fitzgerald John Keats
Ernest Hemingway Edna St. Vincent Millay
Henry James Sylvia Plath
Eugene O’Neill Edgar Allan Poe
Leo Tolstoy Anne Sexton
Tennessee Williams Ezra Pound
Virginia Woolf Alfred Lord Tennyson
Emile Zola Dylan Thomas
Walt Whitman Michelangelo
Irving Berlin Jackson Pollock
Noel Coward Vincent Van Gogh
Stephen Foster Edvard Munch
Cole Porter Mark Rothko
Paul Gauguin Georgia O’Keeffe
Creative minds ‘mimic schizophrenia’
By Michelle Roberts Health reporter, BBC News
Artist Salvador Dali is known for his surreal paintings and eccentric personality
Mark Millard UK psychologistCreativity is akin to insanity, say scientists who have been studying how the mind works. Brain scans reveal striking similarities in the thought pathways of highly creative people and those with schizophrenia. Both groups lack important receptors used to filter and direct thought.
It could be this uninhibited processing that allows creative people to “think outside the box”, say experts from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.
In some people, it leads to mental illness.
But rather than a clear division, experts suspect a continuum, with some people having psychotic traits but few negative symptoms.
Art and sufferingSome of the world’s leading artists, writers and theorists have also had mental illnesses – the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh and American mathematician John Nash (portrayed by Russell Crowe in the film A Beautiful Mind) to name just two.
Creativity is known to be associated with an increased risk of depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Similarly, people who have mental illness in their family have a higher chance of being creative.
Associate Professor Fredrik Ullen believes his findings could help explain why.
He looked at the brain’s dopamine (D2) receptor genes which experts believe govern divergent thought.
He found highly creative people who did well on tests of divergent thought had a lower than expected density of D2 receptors in the thalamus – as do people with schizophrenia.
The thalamus serves as a relay centre, filtering information before it reaches areas of the cortex, which is responsible, amongst other things, for cognition and reasoning.
“Fewer D2 receptors in the thalamus probably means a lower degree of signal filtering, and thus a higher flow of information from the thalamus,” said Professor Ullen.
He believes it is this barrage of uncensored information that ignites the creative spark.
This would explain how highly creative people manage to see unusual connections in problem-solving situations that other people miss.
Schizophrenics share this same ability to make novel associations. But in schizophrenia, it results in bizarre and disturbing thoughts.
UK psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society Mark Millard said the overlap with mental illness might explain the motivation and determination creative people share.
“Creativity is uncomfortable. It is their dissatisfaction with the present that drives them on to make changes.
“Creative people, like those with psychotic illnesses, tend to see the world differently to most. It’s like looking at a shattered mirror. They see the world in a fractured way.
“There is no sense of conventional limitations and you can see this in their work. Take Salvador Dali, for example. He certainly saw the world differently and behaved in a way that some people perceived as very odd.”
- Writer Virginia Woolf
- Painter Vincent van Gogh
- Painter Salvador Dali
- Painter Edvard Munch
- Composer Robert Schumann
- Mathematician John Nash
- Pianist David Helfgott
He said businesses have already recognised and capitalised on this knowledge.
Some companies have “skunk works” – secure, secret laboratories for their highly creative staff where they can freely experiment without disrupting the daily business.
Chartered psychologist Gary Fitzgibbon says an ability to “suspend disbelief” is one way of looking at creativity.
“When you suspend disbelief you are prepared to believe anything and this opens up the scope for seeing more possibilities.
“Creativity is certainly about not being constrained by rules or accepting the restrictions that society places on us. Of course the more people break the rules, the more likely they are to be perceived as ‘mentally ill’.”
He works as an executive coach helping people to be more creative in their problem solving behaviour and thinking styles.
“The result is typically a significant rise in their well being, so as opposed to creativity being associated with mental illness it becomes associated with good mental health.”