Creativity and Mental Illness: The ‘Mad Genius’
By George Simon, PhD
21 September 2009
The nature of the relationship between creativity and mental illness is by no means “settled science.”
For some time there has been a popular notion that creativity, especially a high degree of creativity, and mental illness have much in common. In fact, the idea that “madness” and creative “genius” are related can be traced back to some of the early Greek philosophers. In recent years, some research findings have lent some support to the notion that various types of mental conditions are linked in interesting ways to creativity and that extraordinary creativity itself might predispose some individuals to certain types of mental illness.
Posthumous examinations of the lives of many of the most celebrated but clearly “tortured” artistic and creative souls among us suggest that a disproportionate number of sculptors, painters, poets, actors, writers, and musicians may have suffered from mental conditions, especially the various types of affective disorders. The most common condition appears to be Bipolar Disorder, with periods of intense creativity typically occurring during manic or hypomanic episodes.
Research into the link between creativity and various mental conditions has yielded some very interesting results. One of the most interesting studies, conducted by Chang et. al at Stanford University School of Medicine, found that children who were at risk for developing bipolar disorder — i.e., children who had bipolar parents or who had ADHD, which is sometimes an early manifestation of later life bipolar disorder — scored significantly higher than “normal” children on a measure of artistic creativity. Peterson from the University of Toronto and colleagues from Harvard published a study in 2003 suggesting that the brains of highly creative people have low levels of “latent inhibition,” or the ability to screen out or ignore stimuli that don’t appear related to immediate needs. Such people seem to be “open” to more ideas and sensory input. Interestingly, individuals who show signs of developing mental illness, especially schizophrenia and mania, also show low levels of latent inhibition.
The ability to see the world in an unconventional manner and to adopt perspectives not commonly shared can be both a blessing and a curse. Many creative individuals find themselves outside of the mainstream of both thought and method. As a result, they can experience periods when they feel unaccepted, misunderstood, and painfully alone. It is this reality that Don McLean sought to capture in his musical tribute to Vincent Van Gogh.
The nature of the relationship between creativity and mental illness is by no means “settled science.” Many clinicians and scientific investigators claim that there is no truth whatsoever to the notions of the “mad genius” or deranged scientist. Rather, these individuals argue that mental illness can afflict anyone, including those who rise to some prominence as a result of their giftedness and the subsequent impact of that giftedness on society and history. So, it may not be that highly creative people are more prone to mental illness but merely that such people come to our attention more easily.
In her book A Brilliant Madness: Living With Manic-Depressive Illness, the award-winning actress Patty Duke admitted that she knew something was not right about her for some time before she was diagnosed but believed that she was infinitely more creative and brilliant as an actor when in manic periods. However, she also noted that other, perhaps more objective, observers often didn’t seem to share the notion that she was at her creative best when manic. This kind of controversy has some parallels in the claims of popular musicians who assert that they can’t compose at their best unless they are “high.”
One of the most interesting findings related to the link between depression and a loss of vitality and creativity has to do with the positive benefits in prescribing “creative acts” as a means of helping alleviate depressive symptoms. It seems that nothing dampens the creative spirit quite like depression. As a result, one of the key ways a person might help reverse the depressive process is to deliberately plan and engage in small but distinctly creative actions.
It will be some time before we have all the answers with regard to the relationship — if any — between creativity and mental illness. In the meantime, it’s important to keep in mind that recognizing and making the most of our talents and resources depends at least to some degree on our mental frame of mind and mood. So, when we truly understand and deal with our psychological propensities, we have a much better chance of positively unleashing our creative energies.
 Don Mclean, Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)
YouTube - Vincent (Starry Starry Night) Don McLean