The mythology of the mad artist continues in various forms, supported to some extent by research.
For example, there are studies indicating writers are more susceptible to depression.
Video from World Science Festival: ‘Genius’ Dark Cousin’ – “When talking about geniuses, the conversation inevitably strays towards topics of eccentricity, or even madness. One needs only to look at the lives of artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Mark Rothko, or to mathematician John Nash (pictured)—whose battle with paranoid schizophrenia was made famous in the film A Beautiful Mind—as examples of the thin line between brilliance and insanity.
“But is there really anything to this idea of the “tortured genius”? Or is it just a romanticized notion exaggerated by film and literature? Philip Glass and Julie Taymor respond to striking data presented by Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist who has studied the nature of genius for decades.”
Here is a brief video interview with Shelley Carson, Ph.D. of Harvard University, who teaches and conducts research on creativity, psychopathology, and resilience.
Also listen to my podcast interview: Shelley Carson on enhancing our creative brain
But how valid is the research, and do these notions imply we are more likely to be creative if we have mental health challenges, if we’re unusually neurotic or a bit crazy?
Director Tim Burton may be acclaimed for his films, including “Alice in Wonderland,” but has also been called ‘crazy’ (at least in part for his appearance) or at least ‘eccentric’ – perhaps a polite cover label for ‘mad.’
He has even exploited that sort of reaction, he says: “If you want people to leave you alone then appearing to be crazy is a good thing. If you’re walking down the street talking to yourself people tend to give you a wide berth! But I’ve always been blessed with being easily ignored or avoided. I think maybe it’s because people think I look a little crazy.”
He added, “I have always been an outsider. As a kid I identified with the monsters in the old horror films, like the ‘Creature from the Blue Lagoon’ and ‘Frankenstein’.” [From post 'Crazy' Tim Burton, emusic.tv]
Photo from post Tim Burton on nurturing his unique creative vision
The Mad Hatter [played by Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's version of Alice In Wonderland]: “Have I gone mad?”
Alice Kingsley [Mia Wasikowska; she checks Hatter's temperature]: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.” …
The Mad Hatter: “There is a place. Like no place on Earth. A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger! Some say to survive it: You need to be as mad as a hatter. [picks up his hat] Which luckily I am.”
Cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., addresses this topic in a new post of his.
“I do believe that If the mental processes associated with psychosis were evaporated entirely from this world, art would suck. But so would a lot of other things that require imagination.
He notes that psychosis is on a continuum: “Too much psychosis and one is at high risk of going mad. But everyone engages in psychosis-related thought any time they use their imagination. This type of thought activates particular regions of the brain and is especially prominent while day-dreaming and night-dreaming.”
He thinks that without the “ability to transcend immediate reality, art would lose its creativity. Far from insulting artists, I think it makes us appreciate artists even more, and their ability to show us worlds that many not exist yet, but are possible.”
He asks, “So is extreme, debilitating psychosis a prerequisite for art? Absolutely not. Severe mental illness is nothing to take lightly, and can make it very difficult to produce art.”
In a response to a comment, he explains further: “I do not think a ‘psychotic episode’ is necessary for art, but mental processes such as a reduced latent inhibition can be very useful for art. The continuum aspect is key. Extreme psychosis can lead to a psychotic episode, completely detached from reality. That isn’t very adaptive. But there is a sweet spot in which you still use your imagination but have a healthy foot in reality. That sweet spot is one which is heavily conducive to flow, a state that many artists (and other creative people) seek.”
From his post Is Psychosis a Prerequisite for Art?
“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence.” Edgar Allan Poe
That quote comes from my post Our continuing fascination with creativity and madness which links to the article Creativity, the Arts, and Madness, by Maureen Neihart, Psy.D., who writes:
“The notion that inspiration requires regression and dipping into irrationality in order to access unconscious symbols and thought has been popular across disciplines for hundreds of years. Plato said that creativity is a “divine madness…a gift from the gods”.
She adds a quote attributed to Aristotle: “No great genius was without a mixture of insanity.”
But is that really true?
One consequence of accepting this sort of mythology is you may think you have to be ‘crazier’ than you are in order to be a ‘real artist.’
Or, that you should suffer with depression or other mental health challenges, rather than treat them and ‘lose your creative edge.’
As musician Sting comments, “Do I have to be in pain to write? I thought so, as most of my contemporaries did; you had to be the struggling artist, the tortured, painful, poetic wreck.
“I tried that for a while, and to a certain extent that was successful. I was ‘The King of Pain’ after all. I only know that people who are getting into this archetype of the tortured poet end up really torturing themselves to death.”
Pathology and creative ability
In his PowerPoint presentation Creativity and Psychopathology [html] [PPT] creativity researcher Dean Keith Simonton, PhD notes, “Few creative individuals can be considered truly mentally ill. Indeed, outright disorder usually inhibits rather than helps creative expression. Furthermore, a large proportion of creators exhibit no symptoms, at least not to any measurable degree.”
But he also notes that “because some psychopathological symptoms correlate with several of the characteristics making up the creativity cluster, moderate amounts of these symptoms will be positively associated with creative behavior.”
He explains further that “psychopathology is not the only possible source for the creativity cluster. The environment can also nurture creative development. Although some of these developmental influences are also associated with psychopathology, others are not.”
He concludes, “Psychopathology and creativity are closely related, sharing many traits and antecedents, but they are not identical, and outright psychopathology is negatively associated with creativity.
“This fits what Dryden said about the “thin partition” separating “great wits” and “madness. Or, as the highly creative but not truly crazy Surrealist painter Salvador Dali once expressed the distinction: “The only difference between me and a madman is that I’m not mad.”
One of Dean Keith Simonton’s books is Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity
Crazy is hard-wired. Oh, really?
In her article The Continuing Adventures of the Mad Musician and the Bipolar Genius, Dr. Judith Schlesinger covered a lot about this topic, and writes:
“Great talent always comes at a great price. To be a genius means to suffer—if not the chronic paralysis of depression, then surely the emotional whiplash of bipolar disorder. The exquisite sensitivity of creative artists is hard-wired with their pathology; moreover, their willingness to brave the treacherous rapids of the unconscious for inspiration makes them even more vulnerable to psychotic collapse.
“This is the heart of the ‘mad genius’ myth that has been integral to Western culture for centuries.
“It is also hogwash. The fact is that, despite the efforts of numerous investigators and decades of confident pronouncements by a few, there’s still no concrete, empirical proof that highly creative people are any more likely to be mood-disordered than any other group.”
I don’t agree with her opinion of “no empirical evidence” but in her article, she does raise some important criticisms of research, such as that of leading authors like psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, whom I have quoted a number of times over the years. Here is another quote from her article:
“A careful look at the so-called “landmark” studies in the field—the work by psychiatrists Nancy Andreasen and Arnold Ludwig, and psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison—reveals gaping holes in their design, methodologies, and conclusions.”
Judith Schlesinger, PhD notes she is a “psychologist, author, educator, jazz critic, and musician…” on the site of her book The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius.
n the articles linked above, and below, there are many examples of studies linking depression, neuroticism, even psychotic cognition such as in schizophrenia, with creative people.
But this isn’t causal linking – being “crazy” does not make you creative.
If you experience disruptive symptoms, it may mean you should get help, or help yourself, to gain better emotional health so you can be even more productive and creative.
Related posts and articles:
Creativity, the Arts, and Madness, By Maureen Neihart, Psy.D.
On creativity and intelligence, By Dean Keith Simonton, PhD
Highly sensitive people: latent inhibition and creativity – Reduced latent inhibition has been associated with schizophrenia, and creativity.
Pain and suffering and developing creativity
“Suffering is justified as soon as it becomes the raw material of beauty.” Jean-Paul Sartre
Cheryl Arutt, Psy.D., a psychologist specializing in creative artist issues, says “Many creative people carry the belief that their pain is the locus of their creativity, and worry that they will lose their creativity if they work through their inner conflicts or let go of suffering…”
Musician Sting: “I only know that people who are getting into this archetype of the tortured poet end up really torturing themselves to death.”
What Neuroscience Says About The Link Between Creativity And Madness, Fast Company magazine. “Behavioral and brain researchers have found a number of strong if indirect ties between an original mind and a troubled one (many summarized in a recent post by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman at his Scientific American blog).