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exploring the link between creativity and mental illness

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by George Charles B...

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford

Do the words tortured and genius go hand-in-hand? If you’re highly creative does that mean you’re more susceptible to mental illness? Do you, in fact, need to have a mental illness in order to be creative?

The link between creativity and mental illness has been a subject of discussion and speculation at least since Aristotle suggested there was one. More recently, it has been the subject of much scientific study. The topic is in the limelight once again due to Robin Williams’ suicide.

This edition of Brain & Mind Roundup (#5)  links to four articles by, or citing the work of, Nancy Andreasen and Shelly Cooper, two researchers who study creativity and who have published books on creativity and the brain.

Click on the titles to read the full articles.

secrets of the creative brain

Nancy Andreasen (The Atlantic)

Andreasen is a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who began exploring the anecdotal link between creativity and mental illness in the 1960s when she studied a group of writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She writes:

I have spent much of my career focusing on the neuroscience of mental illness, but in recent decades I’ve also focused on what we might call the science of genius, trying to discern what combination of elements tends to produce particularly creative brains. What, in short, is the essence of creativity? Over the course of my life, I’ve kept coming back to two more-specific questions: What differences in nature and nurture can explain why some people suffer from mental illness and some do not? And why are so many of the world’s most creative minds among the most afflicted? 

the relationship between creativity and mental illness

At brainpickings, Maria Popova provides a beautiful and thoughtful presentation of Nancy Andreason’s book The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius. Popova says:

One of the most interesting chapters in the book deals with the correlation between creativity and mental illness, bringing scientific rigor to such classic anecdotal examples as those evidenced in Van Gogh’s letters or Sylvia Plath’s journals or Leo Tolstoy’s diary of depression or Virginia Woolf’s suicide note. Having long opposed the toxic “tortured genius” myth of creativity, I was instantly intrigued by Andreasen’s inquiry, the backdrop of which she paints elegantly:

Did mental illness facilitate [these creators’] unique abilities, whether it be to play a concerto or to perceive a novel mathematical relationship? Or did mental illness impair their creativity after its initial meteoric burst in their twenties? Or is the relationship more complex than a simple one of cause and effect, in either direction?

And this is where the monumental importance of her study shines: What Andreasen found wasn’t confirmation for the “tortured genius” myth — the idea that a great artist must have some dark, tragic pathology in order to create — but quite the opposite: these women and men had become successful writers not because of their tortuous mental health but despite it.

the real link between creativity and mental illness

Scott Barry Kaufman (SciAm)

Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute and a researcher in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, investigates the measurement and development of imagination. He questions Andreason’s findings and looks deeper, writing:

The oft-cited studies by Kay Redfield Jamison, Nancy Andreasen, and Arnold Ludwig showing a link between mental illness and creativity have been criticized on the grounds that they involve small, highly specialized samples with weak and inconsistent methodologies and a strong dependence on subjective and anecdotal accounts.

Is there any germ of truth to the link between creativity and mental illness? The latest research suggests there is something to the link, but the truth is much more interesting.

It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible. Because you never know: sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas. Indeed, Shelley Carson and her colleagues found that the most eminent creative achievers among a sample of Harvard undergrads were seven times more likely to have reduced latent inhibition.

Latent inhibition is a filtering mechanism that we share with other animals, and it is tied to the neurotransmitter dopamine. A reduced latent inhibition allows us to treat something as novel, no matter how may times we’ve seen it before and tagged it as irrelevant. Prior research shows a link  between reduced latent inhibition and schizophrenia.

creativity and psychopathology: a shared vulnerability model

In this paper, Shelly Carson, Harvard researcher on creativity, psychopathology, and resilience, and author of The Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life, reviews “the empirical evidence for an elevated risk of three disorders in creative individuals: mood disorders, schizospectrum disorders, and alcoholism.”

While creativity is considered a positive personal trait, highly creative individuals have demonstrated elevated risk for certain forms of psychopathology. [In] this paper I argue that a model of shared vulnerability explains the relationship between creativity and psychopathology. This model, supported by recent findings from neuroscience and molecular genetics, suggests that biological determinants that confer risk for psychopathology interact with protective cognitive factors to enhance creative ideation.

Carson

Elements of shared vulnerability include cognitive disinhibition (which allows increased stimuli into conscious awareness), an attentional style that is driven by novelty-salience, and neural hyperconnectivity that may increase associations among disparate stimuli. These vulnerabilities interact with superior meta-cognitive protective factors, such as high IQ, working memory capacity, and cognitive flexibility, to produce an enlarged body of stimuli that is available in conscious awareness to be manipulated and combined to form novel and original ideas.

~ ~ ~

Reading and writing about this topic inevitably makes me think of my partner, who died nearly 10 years ago. He had a very high IQ, good working memory, and great cognitive flexibility, all of which seem to have mitigated the vulnerability factors, which were also present. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which wreaked some havoc in his early and mid-life before it was treated. At times, he was more than a little eccentric, with maybe a touch of mad genius about him. (Always interesting, that’s for sure!)

He was extremely creative, prolifically so, in a variety of areas–especially writing, art, and music–and he continued to be creative while he was on medication, which was very effective for him. So clearly his bipolar bent, if you will, didn’t cause him to be creative. But there was definitely a link there. Those areas of shared vulnerability were significantly moderated by medication, but also by his own awareness and self-monitoring. And maybe that’s something to take away from this, too. Self-awareness and self-monitoring are great tools for keeping us grounded even in the midst of our wildest flights of imagination.

NOTE: Originally published on farthertogo.com.

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One thought on “exploring the link between creativity and mental illness

  1. Pingback: Creativity and Mental Illness – Anne Skyvington

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