Creativity, the Arts, and Madness
By Maureen Neihart, Psy.D.
brief, historical review of the alleged association between
creativity and madness is followed by highlights from recent
research in psychiatry and clinical psychology that
address this relationship.
precise nature of this link is explored from the
perspectives of several disciplines, and implications for the
creative process in gifted education are discussed.
defined as the production of something both new and
valued. Madness is defined as self destructive deviant
Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence-whether much that is glorious-whether all that is profound-does not spring from disease of thought-from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.
They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their grey vision they obtain glimpses of eternity.... They penetrate, however rudderless or compassless, into the vast ocean of the "light affable."
(Edgar Allan Poe, cited in Galloway, 1986, p. 243 ).
belief that madness is linked with creative thinking has
been held since ancient times. It is a widely popular notion.
"Deviant behavior, whether in the form of eccentricity or
worse, is not only associated with persons of genius or
high-level creativity, but it is frequently expected of them."
(Rothenberg, 1990, p. 149).
the time of the Greek philosophers, those who wrote about the
creative process emphasized that creativity involves a
regression to more primitive mental processes, that to be
creative requires a willingness to cross and recross the
lines between rational and irrational thought.
of this article is to describe what creativity and madness
have in common and to discuss implications for creative
thinking in gifted education. The article begins with a
brief, historical overview of the topic, followed by some
highlights of studies on creativity and mental illness.
Explanations for the possible link between creativity and
madness are then addressed.
defined as the production of something that is both new and
valued and madness is defined as a self destructive deviation
in behavior. The article concludes with a discussion of
implications for the creative process in gifted education and
questions for further research.
recorded Aristotle as having said, "No great genius was
without a mixture of insanity" (Langsdorf, 1900, pp. 90-91).
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.
They have composed our masterpieces, but we don't consider
what they have cost their creators in sleepless nights, and
worst of all, fear of
physician, Lombroso (1889), wrote about the connections he
believed to exist between genius and madness. Acceptance
of his ideas persisted well into the 20th century until
Lewis Terman's (1925) data suggested that people of high
ability exhibited less incidence of mental illness and
adjustment problems than average.
the same time that Terman was beginning to publish the first
round of his results, Freud was formulating his
psychoanalytic concepts in Vienna. Freud analyzed literary
works and the lives of eminent creative people because, "He
believed that great works of art and literature contained
universal psychological truths and that the study of artists'
and writers' lives would reveal basic psychological truths in
persons of heightened sensibility and talent." (Rothenberg,
1990, p. 80).
the time of Freud's analyses, other psychoanalysts and
psychologists have continued to conduct scores of
pathographies, diagnostic analyses of the works or lives of
eminent creative people in an effort to improve our
understanding of the relationship between creativity and
madness (Jamison, 1993; Panter, et. al, 1995).
long-held view in psychiatry is that artistic endeavors heal
the artist, whose work is then healing to others. It is
important to note that the studies tend to focus on a
subpopulation of artists in particular: writers, poets, and
premise of the expressive therapies (e.g. art, music, and
dance therapy, etc.) is that writing, composing, or drawing,
etc., is a means to self-understanding, emotional stability
and resolution of conflict. Creativity provides a way to
structure or reframe pain. This, perhaps, is what much
good comedy is about.
creativity and madness have in common? Observations from
psychiatric studies suggest that there are three
characteristics common to both high creative production and
madness. These are disturbance of mood, certain types of
thinking processes, and tolerance for irrationality.
seems to be a greatly increased rate of depression,
manic-depressive illness, and suicide in eminent creative
people, writers and artists especially.
incidence of mental illness among creative artists is higher
than in the population at large. Some studies link creativity
with bipolar disorders specifically (Andreasen, 1988; Jamison,
1989; Richards; 1989), and within the field of academic
psychiatry, there has recently been serious acceptance of the
association between creativity and the mood disturbance,
hypomania (Jamison, 1993).
lists a sample of eminent persons who are believed to have had
a mood disorder. Many of them committed suicide.
expansive quality of the mood is characterized by unceasing
and indiscriminate enthusiasm for interpersonal, sexual, or
occupational interactions" (APA, 1994, p. 328). Grandiosity or
uncritical self confidence is often observed. During a manic
state, thoughts race, sometimes faster than can be
a great increase in goal-directed activity. Manic individuals
may write volumes, paint numerous canvases, or engage in
multiple activities simultaneously. The level of activity is
so high that it results in impairment of functioning, or
hospitalization may be necessary to protect the individual.
slow the pace, put thoughts and feelings into perspective; and
eliminate excess or irrelevant ideas, increasing focus and
allowing structuring of new ideas. In other words, it may be
that the cognitive processes associated with certain moods are
the link between creativity and madness.
rarely turns into creative production without some abatement
of the psychosis, but there is evidence that creative
processes sometimes turn into psychotic ones. Albert
Rothenberg is clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard and
has served for the past twenty-five years as principal
investigator of the Studies in the Creative Process.
focus of his research has been the relationship of creativity
to psychosis. "I was at one time extraordinarily puzzled and
piqued about the fact that so many outstanding persons also
suffered from some form of psychosis (1990, p. 6).
special thought processes are the features that distinguish
creative people from the rest of us. Although very complicated
in structure and in psychological function, there is little
doubt that these particular processes are crucial to
outstanding creative attainment (1990, p. 11).
involves what Rothenberg calls janusian and homospatial
processes. Janusian thinking is a conscious process of
combining paradoxical or antagonistic objects into a
single entity. Homospatial process is the essence of good
metaphor. It means to superimpose or bring together multiple,
that janusian thinking tends to occur in the beginning stages
of creative work when ideas are generated, and homospatial
thinking characterizes the development of the creative ideas.
He acknowledges that there are similarities between the
primary process thinking of psychotics and translogical
thinking, and that there are some subtle
is thus a thin but definite borderline between the most
advanced and healthy type of thinking - creative thinking -
and the most impoverished and pathological types of thinking -
psychotic processes" (p. 12).
found that the conceptual styles of only the first two groups
were similar, with a difference being that the writers had
more control over their thought processes than did the
aspects of thinking in particular are pronounced in both
creative and hypomanic thought: fluency, rapidity, and
flexibility of thought on the one hand, and the ability to
combine ideas or categories of thought in order to form new
and original connections on the other" (1993, p. 105).
appears that the potential for creativity is enhanced by the
cognitive changes that occur within some mental states. We
don't as yet understand the chemical and anatomical pathways
responsible for the cognitive changes that take place during
creative and manic states.
life and suicides of Sylvia Plath and Jackson Polluck
exemplify how thin the line can be between destruction and
creation. Rothenberg (1990) hypothesizes that this line
is crossed, from creativity to madness, when the creative
expression is used primarily to control hostility rather than
as a need to control interferes with turning destructiveness
into creation in art, so it interferes with turning
self-destructive feelings into a process of self-creation in
life" (p. 73).
I do strongly feel that among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal. Certain great artists can make out without it..., but mostly you need ordeal...My idea is this: The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he's in business. Beethoven's deafness, Goya's deafness, Milton's blindness, that kind of thing.
And I think that what happens in my poetic work in the future will probably largely depend not on my sitting calmly on my ass as I think, 'Hmm, hmm, a long poem again? Hmm', but on kinds of other things short of senile dementia. At that point, I'm out, but short of that, I don't know, I hope to be nearly crucified. (cited in Plimpton, 1976, p. 322)
seems to be an increased rate of suicide in eminent creative
people. Many of the cognitive processes that characterize
creative writing also characterize certain mood disorders. The
conceptual style of writers and manic-depressives has been
found to be similar.
personal accounts of many creative writers and visual artists
testify to their struggle with psychological problems. These
findings suggest that the line between creativity and madness
is a fine one, and probably permeable.
many mental health professionals would propose that to wrestle
often with the primitive self is like walking the edge between
sanity and insanity. What implications does the
research have for educational practices?
can help students and parents guard against a too ready
acceptance of the popular notion that deviant or destructive
behaviors are the sine qua non of outstanding creative
achievement. Suffering, or mental breakdown, should not be
accepted as a likely consequence for creative production.
Neither research or history supports that view.
same time, it is probably important that those working with
the creatively gifted be willing to tolerate a higher degree
of irrationality or deviance since such behaviors are more
common among these individuals.
should not ignore the strong association of certain types of
psychological problems with creative production, neither
should we ignore the observation that for every disturbed
creative individual noted there are many more healthy creative
would also be helpful if school personnel were at least aware
that the thought processes of high creatives and those of
manics or psychotics are similar on the surface, but very
parents might advocate for acceptance of translogical modes of
thinking, but not encourage the widely popular pairing
of creative achievement with destructive deviant
their nature and by their identification with eminent artists,
creatively gifted individuals may put themselves at risk for
serious emotional disturbance. Specific assistance in managing
mood vacillations may be helpful.
designed for the artistic temperament may be beneficial in
minimizing the damage that can occur when the line between
rationality and irrationality is crossed and recrossed.
addition, he has written two workbooks of exercises designed
to help adolescents who are having problems with
self-destructive behaviors, anxiety, mood swings, aggression,
substance abuse, and eating disorders (Wexler,1991;1993).
are also resources describing exercises that might be
especially relevant to students who are aspiring writers,
actors, dancers and musicians (Heckler, 1985; Markova, 1994;
training and teaching creatively gifted students should have
in their referral network mental health professionals who can
distinguish superior creative thinking from crazy, psychotic
thinking and who can identify serious mood disturbances.
there is a significant correlation between creative genius and
mental disorders, how do we explain it? Do mood disorders lead
there something about wrestling with the primitive core or
with our moods, that facilitates the creative process? Or is
there a vulnerability that accompanies creative thought?
we explain the exceptions - those who achieve greatness and
lead healthy lives? Are people with certain types of
difficulties (e.g., mood disorders, substance abuse) more
attracted to the creative fields than are people without such
there something about the creative process itself that over
time, contributes to disintegration? Or are the struggles for
health the result of the cumulative effects of repeated
interactions with others who lack understanding or tolerance?
(1989). Compelling evidence for increased rates of affective
disorder among eminent creative persons. Comprehensive
Psychiatry, 30(3), 272-273.
Neihart site maureenneihart.com
Neihart, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical child psychologist with
more than twenty years’ experience counseling gifted children
and their families. She is a former member of the board of
directors of the National Association for Gifted Children, and
is co-editor of the book The
and Emotional Development of Gifted Children: What do We
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