Monday Myth Busters [Madness and Creativity]

Hola mi Gente,

I used to hold Mondays for dispelling commonly held beliefs. I’ve stopped that for some time, but here’s one that has always bothered me.

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Creativity & Madness

No great genius is without a tinge of madness.

— Aristotle (384–322 BC)


Since the time of Aristotle (and most likely before), the assumption has been that the truly creative, particularly those in the arts, are a little “touched” or crazy. And it seems this assumption would not be hard to document. After all, the list of artistic kooks stretches as far back as known history and there are enough contemporary artists to support the idea that insanity and creativity are intimately connected.

But my blog isn’t called unCommon Sense for nothing and part of what I do is question “conventional wisdom.” To wit: Just how true is this assumption?

Well, several researchers have looked at groups of creative individuals to see how many were suffering serious emotional problems. The results were eye opening. In one study of 47 artists and writers, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison (who suffers from bipolar) found that 18 (38 percent) had been treated for a mood disorder at one time or another. Half of the poets she interviewed had been hospitalized or received medication for such a problem.

Another study by psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen monitored faculty members of the renowned University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. In 1987, she found that twenty-four of the thirty creative writers had at some time been diagnosed with a mood disorder — nearly three times the rate of a matched group of professionals in other fields. In addition, Andreasen found that the writers’ parents and siblings were similarly much more likely than the general population to have had a psychological disorder as well as to have reached a high level of creative achievement.

It would be so easy to spin various theories from the results of these studies. Manic states can heighten the senses, accelerate the creative process, or flow of ideas, are some examples. Jamison explains, “Such people have a higher energy level. They think faster.” Another possible explanation is that it is conceivable that both elation and depression provide good material for creative work — a road often not taken leading to experiences as yet explored. Then there are those enamored of biological explanations who assume (even in the absence of any convincing evidence) that it’s all genetic.

However, is mental illness really necessary for art or even more useful than mental health? Andreasen stressed that psychological disorders in themselves do not lead to higher levels of creativity. It’s not so much that mental illness makes people more creative. Rather, it’s more likely that they have a fundamental cognitive style that makes them more creative and also makes them more susceptible to mental illness. That cognitive style could be described as an unusual openness, sensitivity, or intensity. What we can say is that creative people often have what some psychologists call “thin boundaries”: a tendency toward being sensitive, vulnerable to stress, loss, and rejection — all of which are known as precipitants of mental illness.

Creativity and mood disorders are indirectly related, with each being connected to a third factor, and because of this, virtually all researchers deny any real connection between madness and art. In other words, the great majority of creative people are not psychotic and the great majority of psychotic people are not creative. If you go to a psychiatric hospital, you won’t find eccentric, creative people. Rather, you are more likely to find apathetic, sick people.

On the contrary, when given personality tests creative thinkers score high on what is called “ego strength.” Ego strength can be defined as persistence; a sense of reality in the midst of confusion, the ability to function after having been tossed around. According to researchers, creative people are rather well organized, well-put together people who happen to be vulnerable to mood disorders. In fact, contrary to the popular notion, creative people seem to do their best work during their healthy periods. They don’t do well when their moods are at the extreme end. For one, they’re too disorganized when they are high and too despairing when they are low.

I will go further and say that the seeming eccentricity of creative people have led them to being misdiagnosed as bi-polar. Western psychology is biased in the sense that it is overly preoccupied with pathology. Mood swings don’t always imply mental illness. In addition, there is the question of defining mental illness and its relationship to power and norms. In Madness and Civilization, Foucault explored how “madness” could be constituted as an object of knowledge on the one hand, and, on the other, as the target of intervention for a specific type of power: the disciplinary institution of the asylum. Artists and original thinkers are often iconoclasts whose pursuit of their ideas takes them away from the mainstream. It is possible that being a creator, especially in a society that punishes those who do not conform and does not value the creative process, can cause, or worsen, the illusion of psychological difficulties.

So, yeah, it does not follow that madness and creativity are all that connected…

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…



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