Creative genius or bridge-screaming lunatic?
Aristotle once said that “no great genius ever existed without some touch of madness.” People are rarely surprised when they hear an artist took copious amounts of drugs or committed suicide. And when it happens, the media loves to mythologize that artist as “a misunderstood genius.” As a result, we end up thinking that creativity and mental illness are inevitably linked.
Perusing my bookshelf and music collection, I do see overwhelming evidence that artists are more susceptible to mood disorders. But are their illnesses making them creative, or are mood and creativity not causally linked; or could mood disorders actually stifle creativity?
According to psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig, “There is no question that people in the creative arts have higher incidences of depression, mania, alcoholism, drug use, schizophrenic breaks and so forth.” In his book The Price of Greatness, Ludwig argues that creative professions focused on rational thinking and social interaction — like architecture — see very low incidence of mental illness. Meanwhile the creative fields focused on more abstract expression — like visual art — see very high incidence of illness.
Ludwig breaks his continuum down even further, saying that among writers the highest prevalence of mental illness is found in poets, then fiction writers, while non-fiction writers — such as editors and columnists — show the lowest rates of mental illness.
Psychologist James C. Kaufman, director of the Research Learning Center at San Bernardino, echoes Ludwig’s view in what Kaufman calls the “Sylvia Plath Effect,” which claims that female poets are more likely to suffer from mental illness than any other group of distinguished women, such as politicians, actresses or other kinds of artists.
But while psychologists can circlejerk and align their sketchy findings all day, a better way to figure out the role of mood is to consider what the creative world would be like without mental illness.
I question if an artist like John Lennon could have written such beautiful songs had he not struggled with depression. I think he might have been more prolific, and certainly led a happier social life. But I don’t see how his writing could possibly carry the same emotional weight if he hadn’t been burdened by heavy emotions.
Dr. Nancy Andreasen of the University of Iowa also acknowledges the creative insights of mental illness. She says, “Psychotic individuals often display a capacity to see the world in a novel and original way, literally, to see things that others cannot. Might not the cognitive traits possessed by people with psychosis have something in common with those possessed by creative people, who also can sometimes see things that others cannot?”
For example, when a person with bipolar disorder is in a hypomanic state, they can experience accelerated thought processes, a flight of ideas and increased self-esteem, all of which seem capable of opening the mind to new creative possibilities. It’s tempting then to cite this disorder as fueling creativity, but many artists with bipolar disorder — and there are many — often say otherwise.
On an episode of CBC Radio’s The Current, children’s author Robert Munsch said he thinks there is a link between him being bipolar and highly creative but clarified, “When [mental illness] is really active you don’t do anything. It kills you.”
Perhaps mood swings can only be utilized creatively when they come in small doses. Research shows that people are most creative when they are in a positive mood, and therefore, the negative states of mental illness only lower creative productivity.
Strange as it sounds, I believe both views are correct: that mood disorders lead to creative insights, but that they also drain the energy needed for creativity.
I believe it’s precisely this ability to turn negative emotions into something positive that draws me to emotionally troubled musicians like Townes Van Zandt, because in addition to his fine musicianship, I’m touched by the genuine hardship his art is borne out of. I believe depressed artists express truths that happy-go-lucky artists never can; their minds simply cannot tune into these heavier realities.
Perhaps it’s this need to express hardship that leads so many mentally ill people to become highly creative. And as far as I can tell, the art world is the only place that can make use of their problems. Art, unlike anything else, takes eccentric, often antisocial behavior and turns it into something beautiful and inspiring.
Furthermore, mood disorders can prepare someone for the artistic process. Art is largely about confronting uncomfortable emotions — which people with mood disorders are constantly doing. And if art is about removing oneself from the fixedness of reality, then a person who experiences two polar realities might also be more acclimatized to this process.
But if mental illness does encourage creative insight, then afflicted artists may face a dilemma: should they take mood stabilizing medication if it lowers their creativity?
In a recent British Journal of Psychiatry study, Dr. Simon Kyaga admitted, “We often encounter the suggestion that lithium [treatment] reduces creativity in patients with bipolar disorder and that adherence therefore is difficult.” He adds that his research is looking for treatments that “minimize the adverse effects that medication can have on positive aspects of psychiatric disorders.”
So far psychologists can’t prove mental illness has a causal effect on creativity. And I’m not convinced either. In researching this topic, I came across a comment on a blog post about mental illness and creativity that perfectly encapsulates my own views:
“I’ve seen very few songwriters in my life who composed a great song because they were perfectly balanced. Mediocre songs yes, great songs no. It’s problem solving most of the time. I don’t think it is possible to be creative if one has no problem to solve.”