Creativity is usually linked to depression, mental disorders, anxiety and a battery of psychological problems. Hence, the ‘dark side of creativity. Is darkness is an outcome of creativity or is it the other way round? This question might sound trivial to some, but it sure does intrigue me. Let’s know what the biggie researchers have to say about this.
“The sun began to set – suddenly the sky turned blood red,” he wrote. “I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an endless scream passing through nature.” Were his words. Munch experienced indispensably high levels of anxiety in his life but they were also the driving force behind his art. “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”
Munch was not the only one.
Vincent Van Gogh. was a major impressionist painter. Throughout his life, he vacilated between ‘genius’ and ‘madness’. He cut his ear after an altercation with one of his friends. In a letter to his brother Theo in 1888 he wrote: “I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me. Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head… at times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse.”
Studies have found that creative minds are associated with mood disorders. Charles Dickens suffered from clinical depression., along with Ernest Hemingway and Leo Tolstoy. The poetess Sylvia Plath took her own life by sticking her head into the microwave while her kids were fast asleep. Critics rightly pointed out that these studies focused on very specific groups of high-achievers, and that they relied on anecdotal evidence.
Using a registry of psychiatric patients, they tracked nearly 1.2 million Swedes and their relatives. The patients demonstrated conditions ranging from schizophrenia and depression to ADHD and anxiety syndromes.
They found that people working in creative fields, including dancers, photographers and authors, were 8% more likely to live with bipolar disorder. Writers were a staggering 121% more likely to suffer from the condition, and nearly 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
They also found that people in creative professions were more likely to have relatives with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia and autism.
That is significant. Earlier studies on families have suggested that there could be an inherited trait that gives rise to both creativity and mental illness.
Some people may inherit a form of the trait that fosters creativity without the burden of mental illness, while others may inherit an amped-up version that stokes anxiety, depression and hallucinations.
There is anecdotal evidence supporting the connection. Albert Einstein’s son lived with schizophrenia, as did James Joyce’s daughter.
Keri Szaboles, a psychiatrist at Semmelweis University in Hungary, has studied the role genes may play more directly.
Szaboles gave 128 participants a creativity test followed by a blood test. He found that those who demonstrated the greatest creativity carried a gene associated with severe mental disorders.
Method in the madness?
Psychologists have established a link between mental illness and creativity, but they are still piecing together the mechanisms that underlie it.
In September neuroscientist Andreas Fink and his colleagues at the University of Graz in Austria published a study comparing the brains of creative people and people living with schizotypy.
Schizotypy is a less severe manifestation of schizophrenia. People with the condition may demonstrate odd beliefs (like a belief in aliens) or behavior (like wearing inappropriate clothes). Unlike schizophrenics, they do not have delusions and are not disconnected from reality.
Fink and his team recruited participants demonstrating low and high levels of schizotypy. They then slid them into a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, and asked them to come up with novel ways of using every day objects. They later assessed the originality of their responses.
An interesting pattern emerged. Among those high in schizotypy and those who scored highest on originality, the right precuneus – a region of the brain involved in attention and focus – kept firing during idea generation. Normally this region deactivates during a complex task, which is thought to help a person focus.
Put more simply, the results suggest that creatives and those with high levels of schizotypy take in more information and are less able to ignore extraneous details. Their brain does not allow them to filter.
Scott Barry Kaufman, an American psychologist and writer for Scientific American, has summed up the results this way. “It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible,” he writes. “Because you never know: sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas.”
Clearly some people suffer for their art, and clearly some art stems from suffering. But it would be inaccurate to say that all creatives run the risk of mental illness.