Creativity and Mental Illness

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Explaining the Line It has been often thought and debated that creativity is linked with mental illnesses. That a thin partition exists between the two has been a rumination of Aristotle and an examination of the modern psychologist. The idea of a connection between madness and creativity continues, even while it is questioned by some researchers. Such a connection seems paradoxical; how can symptoms that can destroy and debilitate the brain be the roots of the genius and creativity of talented individuals? Bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia can lead to psychiatric help, powerful medications, and suicide; each has serious, harmful, and sometimes dangerous effects. And yet these three illnesses seem to be very closely knit to the creativity of artists, authors, and other creative individuals. Through years of research and experiments, it can be seen that a connection between these ailments and the creative mind does exist. Bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia are not just debilitating illnesses, but can cause changes that potentially enhance the creativity of those who suffer from them.

Bipolar Disorder The wild mood swings that result from bipolar and affective disorders can be highly debilitating. Severe manic or depressive episodes can require hospitalization and last for long periods of time, along with medication and other treatment. During such episodes, individuals have issues functioning and behaving normally, and their relationships and job or school performance can heavily deteriorate (“Bipolar Disorder”). At the same time, various studies point to a strikingly high rate of affective disorders among artists and writers. In a study of thirty prominent American writers and

controls, statistically significant figures found that 80% of writers suffered from some affective disorder (compared to 30% of their control), with 43% percent of writers suffering from a bipolar disorder, versus just 10% of the control (Andreasen, 1987). A similar study of one hundred famous American and British authors found psychopathology that fit into the affective and bipolar spectrum in greater than 80% of the poets, playwrights, and novelists (Post 1996). In Post’s 1994 study, he found that among his 291 world famous men, his artists and writers also had higher rates of affective disorders compared to men of other professions and the general population (Post, 1994). Recent studies of the relationship find overrepresentations of people suffering from bipolar disorder among authors, poets, and visual artists (Murray, 2010). Given this correlation between affective and bipolar disorders with creative individuals, the question arises how exactly the disorder could enhance the creativity and explain the correlation. Most of the theories that connect the two deal with positive effects, and the correlation between positive feelings with heightened creativity and creative processes. Bipolar patients tend to have episodes where they have particularly sharp positive moods, which often correlate with some particularly creative periods (Murray, 2010; Post 1996). Creativity can be conceptualized as forming associated elements into new and useful ideas, and positive moods correlate with faster and more global processing, more flexibility in thought, and richer associations. Meanwhile bipolar traits have similar correlations with higher divergent thinking “openness” and lower latent inhibition, all elements of a mind that creates a greater quantity of unique associations (Murray, 2010; Svrivastava, 2010). In particularly, low latent inhibition is interesting because it is a trait shared with schizotypy, and usually

results in the ability to connect more ideas and create more associations (Nelson, 2008). This is an ability that is shared with “highly creative” individuals who have normal mental health (Dykes, 1976). Bipolar patients also have higher amygdala function that causes a negative affinity towards “simple figures”, along with what seems to be altered visual and affective processing that changes how they view inputs. Again, this difference can result in a different view of inputs and stimuli and allow for the creation of a greater quantity of original ideas (Santosa, 2007). The combination of these traits helps explain how bipolar and affective disorder can contribute to creativity. Moreover, the increased positive moods, along with a mind that is more “open” and can create more exotic associations, are traits that correlate with creativity. Similarly, some researchers believe that the movement between emotional extremes results in a more complicated wiring of the brain and more persistent plasticity; a condition that creates more interconnectedness, and the ability to connect seemingly incongruous thoughts. Another view is that the heightened energy that results from some of the manic episodes and extreme positive moods can also generate more ideas. Later, during episodes of normality, these ideas can be reflected upon and modified to become more complete (Angier, 1993). Despite these correlations between creativity, and affective mood and bipolar disorders, individuals suffering from bipolar disorder can face issues in terms of their ability to function. Many authors in Post’s 1996 study faced periods of time where they could not work due to episodes of severe depression and negative emotions (Post, 1996). Besides the inability to work, a severe episode of mania or depression can lead to suicide, and around 20% of individuals who go untreated end up with this result (Angier, 1993).

If the swings are severe enough that one cannot function normally, then creative thought and achievement will be completely stopped as well. So although bipolar and affective disorders can contribute to creativity, if it is too severe, it becomes a negative effect. In addition, it still takes much effort and work to be creative and succeed in one’s field. Post’s studies also showed that nearly every single individual in his study excelled not just from their creativity but from their ambition and meticulous nature as well (Post, 1996). Bipolar disorder can indeed contribute to creativity, but is not enough for creative success. The results when some of the enhanced creativity comes together with other traits of success can be seen in individuals like William Faulkner, Van Gogh, and Leo Tolstoy, whose works remain revered today.

Depression Similar to how a manic or depressive episode can result in debilitation, depression interferes with daily life. It can prevent eating, sleeping, and enjoying activities, all of which prevent normal function and behavior (“Depression”). Though severe depression, like bipolar disorder, can result in reduced creativity and dysfunction, there has generally been a link found between depression and creativity. Depression contributes to creativity when it is a mild condition, as major depression prevents normal function. Depression, along with other mental illnesses, tends to display an inverted U relationship with creativity. This pattern indicates that mental illnesses can be helpful to a certain point, at which point they become debilitating. In the case of depression, at some point the depressive state becomes so severe that the individual can no longer function creatively or normally, at which point any enhanced creativity makes no difference (Nelson 2008).

But depression tends to not be fixed in one state, and so individuals who suffer from it generally suffer varying episodes of severity (“Depression”). The correlation between depression and creativity is most evident with artists and writers (Post, 1994). Cases of depression are strikingly present within artists and writers. In Post’s studies, nearly 72% of writers, playwrights, and artists suffered from severe depressive episodes, which can lead to other mental health issues as well as problems like alcoholism and substance abuse (Post, 1994; Post, 1996). Among authors and writers, cases of depression and similar disorders are supposed to be eight times greater than the general population (Akinola, 2008). Prominent artists and writers are famous for their bouts of depression. Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso are just some of the figures whose depressions affected their works in creative ways (Post 1994). In analyzing how depression and negative social feedback affected creativity, Akinola and Mendes’ 2008 experiment displayed how creativity was enhanced by negative emotions. It was found that participants with negative emotions and feedback scored higher in creativity than groups that had positive or neutral emotions and feeback (Akinola, 2008). Given how depression is an inhibitor to normal functionality, that depression can enhance creativity seems contradictory. However, there are possible ways that depression can enhance creativity. An explanation for the enhanced creativity from negative feedback and emotions is that it created introspection and intense ruminating, which would result in more detailed thinking and improved ideas. (Akinola, 2008). Depression is often observed to be associated with reduced dorsolateral prefrontal blood flow, which may help the facilitation of creativity. The reduced activity in the frontal and cingulated

regions can result in more use of distribution networks for richer ideas, a reduced ratio of signal-to-noise, and reduced levels of cortical norepinephrine. These conditions indicate that the brain is more engaged in introspection or rumination, allowing for a more focused development of ideas (Heilman, 2005). Alternatively, negative emotions could be met with the thought that more effort is needed, and such drive is a critical factor for creative success. Aiding these results of negative emotions is that studies have shown that negative emotions seem to aid activities that require focus and meticulous execution. Depression, unlike bipolar or affective disorders, seems to affect behavior more than brain function and the creative process. It is also likely that the creative enhancements from depression could also apply to depressed episodes from bipolar and affective disorders, in addition to the effects of the sharp positive moods that result from such disorders (Akinola, 2008). It does not require much repeating that the authors and artists that suffered from depression still had a level of drive and ambition that allowed them to be successful through hard work (Post, 1994). Still, it is interesting that one of depressions possible effects is additional motivation to succeed, an effect that the other conditions do not have. In addition to potential positives though, depression can easily cause severe drops in creativity and creative achievement. Episodic periods of major depressive states, along with often associated issues like alcoholism and substance abuse, often forced artists and writers to have periods of time of inactivity with no creative thought (Post, 1996).


Like other mental illnesses, schizophrenia maps onto the inverted U curve. Schizophrenia itself is severely debilitating, as the mental delusions mean that the individual is not living in reality and cannot function in a normal manner (“Schizophrenia”). It usually results in bizarre rather than original experiences, cognitive impairments, and is chronic rather than episodic. These effects do not contribute to creativity as once thought, and likely reduce it instead.(Andreasen, 1987). In its milder forms however, schizophrenia manifests itself in a number of schizotypal traits (Nelson, 2008). Schizotypal individuals tend to share some of the traits of schizophrenia like social awkwardness, introversion, and difficulty in communicating, as well the tendency to have unsual experiences. Schizotypy might be related to latent schizophrenia, though not all schizotypal individuals go on to develop schizophrenia (Nelson, 2008; Claridge, 2009). The primary difference between full schizophrenia and schizotypy is that the lack of debilitating thoughts and delusions that remove the individual from the real world. Without this debilitating aspect of schizophrenia, schizotypal individuals are likely to enjoy the possible creative benefits of schizophrenia were it not for the delusions (Nelson 2008). This displays schizophrenia’s relationship as an inverted U curve, where franks schizophrenia is associated with low creativity because of dysfunction, while the schizotypal traits correlate with enhanced creativity. Few creative individuals actually have schizophrenia during their creative periods, as schizophrenia itself is very debilitating. Besides basic functionality becoming more difficult, schizophrenic individuals have issues with revising and organizing their thoughts, particularly when dealing with main ideas (Rothenberg 1990). Despite the low prevalence of schizophrenia, artists tended to have elevated scores of schizotypy and

displayed more schizotypal traits (Andreasen, 1987; Nelson, 2008). The correlation between such traits and creativity perhaps has to do with how schizotypy changes affects the brain. James Joyce, a schizoid, suffered briefly auditory hallucinations that were the result of latent schizophrenia breaking through following one of his bouts with depression. His dealings with the schizophrenia can be seen in some of his works like Ulysses, with their unique stream-of-consciousness style (Post, 1994). Meanwhile John Nash presents a case study of an extremely creative individual who developed schizophrenia, and whose schizotypy contributed to his genius. Although he initially only displayed schizotypal traits, stresses in his life eventually led to the development of his paranoid schizophrenia, which prevented him from normal functionality. Following his recovery from schizophrenia, he could no longer make significant contributions to his field. Essentially, schizophrenia removed his ability to think creatively and thoughtfully. Prior to his schizophrenia however, Nash was a brilliant mathematician whose schizotypy probably contributed to his genius, even saying that his delusions came in the same way as his mathematical ideas. If Nash is a good model, then schizophrenia and creativity might have a similar root in terms of their processes. Schizotypy and creativity are most likely connected because of the correlation between schizotypal traits and low latent inhibition. With low latent inhibition, schizotypal individuals become more open to different stimuli and tend to make more associations (Nelson, 2010). As a result, experiences tend to seem “fresher” and they tend to make use more inputs with their associations. The fresher view may lead to greater feelings of positive mood, which are also correlated with greater creativity (Nelson 2008). In addition, they seem to have more access to the unconscious stream of thought, which

can result in vivid images and ideas. These vivid thoughts can be particularly powerful in writing, and seem to manifest themselves in poetry (Rothenberg, 1990). Also, the fact that the debilitating delusions and creative revelations of Nash came from a similar or same source helps to show the connection between the two in terms of the creative process. Still, John Nash again provides an excellent case of study of what else is required for creative success. Nash may have had some of his insight and inspiration rooted in his latent schizophrenia, but he was also an extremely curious, driven, and intelligent individual. Without these other traits, Nash, and other schizotypal creative individuals, would not have the success they do.

Other Traits As briefly discussed before, creative genius and success is not just a result of enhanced creativity, whether from a mental illness or something else. Drive, ambition, and effort were traits found in all successful, world famous men, among both the artists and writers that had strikingly high levels of mental disorders, and the scientists and others who didn’t (Post, 1994). To be creative, it is required to really become a master of one’s domain, and to put in the effort and work to achieve this. Many creative revelations and world changing ideas were results from smaller insights, developed from research, hard work, and knowing one’s field extremely well (Sawyer, 2005). It is likely that the enhanced creativity from various disorders helped many famous individuals achieve their success. However, the traits that involved ambition, drive and effort were key pieces that were absolutely necessary to supplement their creativity.

Conclusion As paradoxical as it seems, the various effects that mental disorders have on the brain may not just result in negative issues, but actually enhance creativity. As long as the disorder is not debilitating in its severity, the brain can develop to the way the brain approaches ideas, connects them, and pursues them, resulting in increased creativity. It is from this relationship that the idea of a line separating creativity and madness emerges, and why stereotypes of mad geniuses and depressed artists exist and are perpetuated. Different levels of energy, heightened ability to make associations, and modified motivation are just some of the features that can result from the mental disorders, either from bipolar mood swings, episodes of depression, or exhibition of latent schizophrenia and schizotypy. These features can enhance the mind’s creative processes, and can explain the higher levels of such disorders among individuals in creative fields like art and writing. However, it is very important to note that not all individuals that have such traits are creative; creativity requires not just the ability to have inspirations, but work, ambition, and a lot of effort; traits that lead to success with or without enhanced creativity.

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