The link between creativity and mental illness

The idea that mental illness and creativity seem to go hand in hand has existed ever since antiquity. Aristotle himself philosophized over why so many poets, artists, politicians and philosophers were so prone to melancholia. In the past creativity was thought to be divinely inspired, meaning it is not the poet himself who is the talented one but his talent is dependent on the blessings of the gods. Today we know better and research has indeed shown that there is a correlation between mental illness and creativity.

But this doesn´t go for all mental illnesses. Aristotle believed that melancholia (depression) was the root cause of creativity but modern research shows that this isn´t true. Depression and creativity had no correlation and neither did anxiety disorders, but bipolar disorder and psychosis did.

Mental illnesses that involve a warped view of reality were the ones that had the strongest correlation with creativity. People who are creative have a divergent way of thinking, which basically means that they simply think in different and conflicting ways.

Surprisingly though, the people suffering from these kinds of mental illnesses are not the creative ones but more so their close relatives. As an example this means that it´s not the schizophrenic that is the creative one, but more likely his/her parent or his/her siblings or children. So it seems that the genes that cause creativity can also cause mental illness.

However there are of course also those who are both mentally ill and creative, but the creativity tends to occur in milder episodes. During episode that are way too intense and overwhelming the creativity disappears. Someone with bipolar disorder can very well be creative during hypomania but nor during full blown mania. And perhaps that´s not surprising since all the person´s effort and energy goes into keeping themselves together.

In the past qualities that were associated with “melancholy” were eccentricity, solitude, moodiness and sensitivity. And even today people that crave solitude and perceive themselves as more sensitive to the world around them, also tend to perceive themselves as more creative. During the 16th century these traits were even considered highly popular but like with everything that is in vogue, it also changed eventually.

Later on it became more popular for the creative one to behave more gentlemanly and you could not be a gentleman and socially engaged while simultaneously being moody and craving alone time. If you were going to be an artist then you had to be rational.

And this idea seems to have followed us into modern days, creative people are expected to network and flaunt themselves on social media and be sociable just like everybody else. In essence they must juggle two talents meaning creativity and sociability, while the sociable ones don´t need to juggle creativity.

A fascinating discovery with the research is that the one profession that was specifically linked to schizophrenia, bipolar, different anxiety disorders and so on was…author. Why this is, is still unknown but the theory that creativity and mental illness is connected is not without its critics. For instance research done on “scientific creativity” showed no correlation with mental illness. 45 Nobel Prize laurates were interviewed and none of them claimed to have a mental illness.

Albert Rothenburg, the one who did the study argued that perhaps mentally ill people who work in creative business are not that creative but simply drawn to these kinds of jobs. Furthermore it is possible that data is skewed since most mental hospitals use art therapy which can make the patient more inclined to pursue creativity once they get out. Clearly more research is needed on this.  

Source: Creativity and mental illness; The mad genius in question by Simon Kyaga

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