Creativity and Mental Illness

Numerous studies have demonstrated correlations between creative occupations and mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The association between bipolar disorder and creativity first appeared in literature in the 1970s, but the idea of a link between ‘madness’ and ‘genius’ is much older, dating back at least to the time of Aristotle. The Ancient Greeks believed that creativity came from the gods, and in particular the Muses, the goddesses of arts and sciences, and the nine daughters of Zeus, the king of the gods.

The idea of a complete work of art emerging without conscious thought or effort was reinforced by the views of the Romantic era. It has been proposed that there is a particular link between creativity and bipolar disorder, whereas major depressive disorder appears to be significantly more common among playwrights, novelists, biographers, and artists. Psychotic individuals are said to display a capacity to see the world in a novel and original way, literally, to see things that others cannot.

A study by psychologist J. Philippe Rushton found creativity to correlate with intelligence and psychoticism. Another study found creativity to be greater in schizotypal than in either normal or schizophrenic individuals. Divergent thinking is associated with bilateral activation of the prefrontal cortex, and schizotypal individuals were found to have much greater activation of their right prefrontal cortex. Potentially, such individuals are better at accessing both hemispheres, allowing them to make novel associations at a faster rate. In agreement with this hypothesis, ambidexterity is also associated with schizotypal and schizophrenic individuals. Three recent studies by Mark Batey and Adrian Furnham have demonstrated the relationships between schizotypal and hypomanic personality and several different measures of creativity.

Particularly strong links have been identified between creativity and mood disorders, particularly manic-depressive disorder (bipolar disorder) and depressive disorder (unipolar disorder). In ‘Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament,’ Kay Redfield Jamison summarizes studies of mood-disorder rates in writers, poets and artists. She also explores research that identifies mood disorders in such famous writers and artists as Ernest Hemingway (who shot himself after electroconvulsive treatment), Virginia Woolf (who drowned herself when she felt a depressive episode coming on), composer Robert Schumann (who died in a mental institution), and even the famed visual artist Michelangelo.

A study looking at 300,000 persons with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or unipolar depression, and their relatives, found overrepresentation in creative professions for those with bipolar disorder as well as for undiagnosed siblings of those with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Another study involving more than one million people, conducted by Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute, reported a number of correlations between creative occupations and mental illnesses. Writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, and were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves. Dancers and photographers were also more likely to have bipolar disorder. However, as a group, those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people, although they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism, according to the ‘Journal of Psychiatric Research.’

Mood-creativity research reveals that people are most creative when they are in a positive, relaxed mood and that mental illnesses such as depression or schizophrenia actually decrease creativity. People who have worked in the field of arts throughout the history have had problems with poverty, persecution, social alienation, psychological trauma, substance abuse, high stress, and other such environmental factors which are associated with developing and perhaps causing mental illness. It is thus likely that when creativity itself is associated with positive moods, happiness, and mental health, pursuing a career in the arts may bring problems with stressful environment and income. Other factors such as the centuries-old stereotype of the suffering of a ‘mad artist’ help to fuel the link by putting expectations on how an artist should act. It also makes the field more attractive to those with mental illness.

There is a range of types of bipolar disorder. Individuals with Bipolar I Disorder experience severe episodes of mania and depression with periods of wellness between episodes. The severity of the manic episodes can mean that the person is seriously disabled and unable to express the heightened perceptions and flight of thoughts and ideas in a practical way. Individuals with Bipolar II Disorder experience milder periods of hypomania (a less severe form of mania) during which the flight of ideas, faster thought processes and ability to take in more information can be converted to art, poetry or design.

Many famous historical figures gifted with creative talents may have been affected by bipolar disorder including Ludwig van Beethoven, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Isaac Newton, Judy Garland and Robert Schumann. In many instances, creativity and psychopathology share some common traits, such as a tendency for ‘thinking outside the box,’ flights of ideas, speeding up of thoughts and heightened perception of visual, auditory and somatic stimuli. A 2012 paper suggested that psychiatric conditions associated with psychotic spectrum symptoms, such as bipolar I, may be possible explanations for revelatory driven experiences and activities such as those of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Saint Paul.

Many people with bipolar disorder may feel powerful emotions during both depressive and manic phases, potentially aiding in creativity. Because (hypo)mania decreases social inhibition, performers are often daring and bold. As a consequence, creators commonly exhibit characteristics often associated with mental illness. The frequency and intensity of these symptoms appear to vary according to the magnitude and domain of creative achievement. At the same time, these symptoms are not equivalent to the full-blown psychopathology of a clinical manic episode which, by definition, entails significant impairment.

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