“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence…” Edgar Allan Poe
The notion that creative people are more likely to experience mental health disorders is actually supported by research to some degree. And a number of writers propose that mental illness may even help nurture creative potential for some people.
Of course, many, if not most, “ordinary” people have all sorts of mental health challenges, but the idea that so-called geniuses and creative people may be more susceptible has been around “forever.”
In her article Creativity, the Arts, and Madness, Maureen Neihart, Psy.D. notes, “Seneca recorded Aristotle as having said, ‘No great genius was without a mixture of insanity.’ 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.”
Connie Francis, van Gogh, Kierkegaard, Virginia Woolf – all suffered from depression.
The list of notable people in the arts and entertainment who have experienced mood disorders is a very long one.
Depression can be a life-threatening illness, and creativity coach and therapist Eric Maisel, PhD (author of The Van Gogh Blues) says it is especially important for creative people to make meaning in their lives and work to help keep depression from overcoming them.
But Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison and author Tom Wootton, among others, have found value in their experiences of depression. Jamison has said, “But normal or manic I have run faster, thought faster, and loved faster than most I know.”
See the page Depression and Creativity for more quotes by them – and the site Depression and Creativity for more perspectives (by Alicia Keys, Eckhart Tolle, Shawn Colvin and many others), book excerpts and article links.
Psychotic traits may enable creative thinking
In his article Creative minds: the links between mental illness and creativity (The Independent, UK), Roger Dobson declares, “Creative minds in all kinds of areas, from science to poetry, and mathematics to humour, may have traits associated with psychosis. Such traits may allow the unusual and sometimes bizarre thought processes associated with mental illness to fuel creativity.
“The theory is based on the idea that there is no clear dividing line between the healthy and the mentally ill. Rather, there is a continuum, with some people having psychotic traits without having the debilitating symptoms.”
He adds, “Mental illnesses have been around for thousands of years. Evolutionary theory suggests that in order for them to be still here, there must be some kind of survival advantage to them.
“Anxiety, for example, can be a mental illness with severe symptoms and consequences, but it is also a trait that at a non-clinical level has survival advantages. In healthy proportions, it keeps us alert and on our toes when threats are sensed.
“It’s now increasingly being argued that there are survival advantages to others forms of illness, too, because of the links between the traits associated with them and creativity.”
Creative people more likely to have mental health challenges?
Dobson also notes research support “for the idea that creative people are more likely to have traits associated with mental illness. One study found that the incidence of mood disorders, suicide and institutionalisation to be 20 times higher among major British and Irish poets in the 200 years up to 1800.
“Other studies have shown that psychiatric patients perform better in tests of abstract thinking. Another study, based on 291 eminent and creative men in different fields, found that 69 per cent had a mental disorder of some kind. Scientists were the least affected, while artists and writers had increased diagnoses of psychosis.”
But the idea is not that being “crazy” makes you more creative
Dobson quotes experimental psychologist Emilie Glazer: “Most theorists agree that it is not the full-blown illness itself, but the milder forms of psychosis that are at the root of the association between creativity and madness. The underlying traits linked with mild psychopathology enhance creative ability. In severe form, they are debilitating.”
A couple of traits that most of us are probably familiar with – distractibility (or maybe ADHD?) and perfectionism – caused da Vinci to fail to accomplish many of his ideas, according to the article How to Procrastinate Like Leonardo da Vinci, by W.A. Pannapacker (an associate professor of English at Hope College), in The Chronicle Review.
“Leonardo was the kind of person we have come to call a ‘genius.’ But he had trouble focusing for long periods on a single project. After he solved its conceptual problems, Leonardo lost interest until someone forced his hand. Even then, Leonardo often became a perfectionist about details that no one else could see, and the job just didn’t get done.”
Diagnosis and misdiagnosis
Another aspect of all this is diagnosis, whether by psychiatrists or the media or even ourselves.
What constitutes a “disorder” to a shrink may be a familiar, even useful personality characteristic to an artist. Or anyone else.
The book Misdiagnosis And Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults warns that “Many of our brightest, most creative, most independent thinking children and adults are being incorrectly diagnosed as having behavioral, emotional, or mental disorders.
“They are then given medication and/or counseling to change their way of being so that they will be more acceptable within the school, the family, or the neighborhood, or so that they will be more content with themselves and their situation.”
“The tragedy for these mistakenly diagnosed children and adults is that they receive needless stigmatizing labels that harm their sense of self and result in treatment that is both unnecessary and even harmful to them, their families, and society.”
But another problem is that people who need help may not be getting it.
“Other equally bright children and adults experience another misfortune. Their disorders are obscured because, with their intelligence, they are able to cover up or compensate for their problems, or people mistakenly think that they are simply quirkily gifted.”
Related book: Creativity & Madness: Psychological Studies of Art & Artists, by Barry Panter, MD.
Related article Moods and the muse.