Creativity and mental health

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Links between creativity and mental health have been extensively discussed and studied by psychologists and other researchers for centuries. Parallels can be drawn to connect creativity to major mental disorders including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, OCD and ADHD. For example, studies[3][4] have demonstrated correlations between creative occupations and people living with mental illness. There are cases that support the idea that mental illness can aid in creativity, but it is also generally agreed that mental illness does not have to be present for creativity to exist.


It has been proposed that there is a particular link between creativity and mental illness (e.g. bipolar disorder, whereas major depressive disorder appears to be significantly more common among playwrights, novelists, biographers, and artists).[5] Association between mental illness and creativity first appeared in literature in the 1970s, but the idea of a link between "madness" and "genius" is much older, dating back at least to the time of Aristotle. In order to comprehend how the connection between “madness” and “genius” correlate, it is important to first understand that there are different types of geniuses: literary geniuses, creative geniuses, scholarly geniuses, and “all around” geniuses. Since there are many different categories, this means that individuals can completely excel in one subject and know an average, or below average, amount of information about others.[6] The Ancient Greeks believed that creativity came from the gods, in particular the Muses (the mythical personifications of the arts and sciences, the nine daughters of Zeus). In the Aristotelian tradition, conversely, genius was viewed from a physiological standpoint, and it was believed that the same human quality was perhaps responsible for both extraordinary achievement and melancholy.[7] Romantic writers had similar ideals, with Lord Byron having pleasantly expressed, "We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched".

Individuals with mental illness are said to display a capacity to see the world in a novel and original way; literally, to see things that others cannot.[8]


For many years, the creative arts have been used in therapy for those recovering from mental illness or addiction.[9][10]

Another study found creativity to be greater in schizotypal than in either normal or schizophrenic individuals. While divergent thinking was associated with bilateral activation of the prefrontal cortex, schizotypal individuals were found to have much greater activation of their right prefrontal cortex.[11] This study hypothesized that such individuals are better at accessing both hemispheres, allowing them to make novel associations at a faster rate. In agreement with this hypothesis, ambidexterity is also associated with schizotypal and schizophrenic individuals.

Three recent studies by Mark Batey and Adrian Furnham have demonstrated the relationships between schizotypal[12][13] and hypomanic personality[14] and several[which?] different measures of creativity.

Particularly strong links have been identified between creativity and mood disorders, particularly manic-depressive disorder (a.k.a. bipolar disorder) and depressive disorder (a.k.a. unipolar disorder). In Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Kay Redfield Jamison summarizes studies of mood-disorder rates in writers, poets and artists. She also explores research that identifies mood disorders in such famous writers and artists as Ernest Hemingway (who shot himself after electroconvulsive treatment), Virginia Woolf (who drowned herself when she felt a depressive episode coming on), composer Robert Schumann (who died in a mental institution), and even the famed visual artist Michelangelo.

A study looking at 300,000 persons with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or unipolar depression, and their relatives, found overrepresentation in creative professions for those with bipolar disorder as well as for undiagnosed siblings of those with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. There was no overall overrepresentation, but overrepresentation for artistic occupations, among those diagnosed with schizophrenia. There was no association for those with unipolar depression or their relatives.[15]

A study involving more than one million people, conducted by Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute, reported a number of correlations between creative occupations and mental illnesses. Writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, and were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves. Dancers and photographers were also more likely to have bipolar disorder.[16]

However, as a broader group, those in the creative professions (defined as "scientific and artistic occupations") were no more likely to experience psychiatric disorders than other people, although they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism, the Journal of Psychiatric Research reports.[16]

Research in this area is usually constrained to cross-section data-sets. One of the few exceptions is an economic study of the well-being and creative output of three famous music composers over their entire lifetime.[17] The emotional indicators are obtained from letters written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Liszt, and the results indicate that negative emotions had a causal impact on the creative production of the artists studied.

Psychological stress has also been found to impede spontaneous creativity.[18][19]

A 2005 study at the Stanford University School of Medicine measured creativity by showing children figures of varying complexity and symmetry and asking whether they like or dislike them. The study showed for the first time that a sample of children who either have or are at high risk for bipolar disorder tend to dislike simple or symmetric symbols more. Children with bipolar parents who were not bipolar themselves also scored higher dislike scores.[20]

A study by Sally Anne Gross and George Musgrave suggested that high levels of self-reported anxiety and depression amongst musicians might be explained, at least in part, by the nature of their working conditions.[21]

Mood and creativity[edit]

Mood-creativity research reveals that people are most creative when they are in a positive mood[22][23] and that mental illnesses such as depression or schizophrenia actually decrease creativity.[24][25] People who have worked in the arts throughout history have dealt with poverty, persecution, social alienation, psychological trauma, substance abuse, high stress[26][medical citation needed] and other such environmental factors which are associated with developing and perhaps causing mental illness. It is thus likely that when creativity itself is associated with positive moods, happiness, and mental health, pursuing a career in the arts may bring problems with stressful environment and income.[clarification needed] Other factors such as the centuries-old stereotype of the suffering of a "mad artist" help to fuel the link by putting expectations on how an artist should act, or possibly making the field more attractive to those with mental illness. Additionally, where specific areas of the brain are less developed than others by nature or external influence, the spatial capacity to expand another[clarification needed] increases beyond "the norm" allowing enhanced growth and development.[citation needed]

Bipolar disorder[edit]

Bipolar disorder is one of the main mental disorders said to inspire creativity, as the manic episodes are typically characterised by prolonged and elevated periods of energy. In her book Touched with Fire, American clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison wrote that 38% of writers and poets had been treated for a type of mood disorder, and virtually all creative writers and artists (89%) had experienced "intense, highly productive, and creative episodes". These were characterised by "pronounced increases in enthusiasm, energy, self-confidence, speed of mental association, fluency of thought and elevated mood".[27] Although mania is characterized by reckless and possibly self-destructive behavior, in milder forms, the energy and free-flowing thinking of mania can fuel creativity.[28] There is a range of types of bipolar disorder. Individuals with Bipolar I Disorder experience severe episodes of mania and depression with periods of wellness between episodes. The severity of the manic episodes can mean that the person is seriously disabled and unable to express the heightened perceptions and flight of thoughts and ideas in a practical way. Individuals with Bipolar II Disorder experience milder periods of hypomania during which the flight of ideas, faster thought processes and ability to take in more information can be converted to art, poetry or design.[29] Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh is widely theorised to have suffered from bipolar disorder. Other notable creative people with bipolar disorder include Carrie Fisher, Demi Lovato, Kanye West, Stephen Fry (who suffers from cyclothymia, a milder and more chronic form of bipolar),[30] Mariah Carey, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Ronald Braunstein,[31][32] and Patty Duke.[33]


People with schizophrenia live with positive, negative, and cognitive symptoms. Positive symptoms (psychotic behaviors that are not present in healthy people) include hallucinations, delusions, and thought and movement disorders. Negative symptoms (abnormal functioning of emotions and behavior) include "flat affect", anhedonia, reserved. Cognitive symptoms include problems with "executive functioning", attention, and memory.[34] One artist known for his schizophrenia was the Frenchman Antonin Artaud, founder of the Theatre of Cruelty movement. In Madness and Modernism (1992), clinical psychologist Louis A. Sass noted that many common traits of schizophrenia – especially fragmentation, defiance of authority, and multiple viewpoints – happen to also be defining features of modern art.[35]

Arguments that support link[edit]

In a 2002 conversation with Christopher Langan, educational psychologist Arthur Jensen stated that the relationship between creativity and mental disorder "has been well researched and is proven to be a fact", writing that schizothymic characteristics are somewhat more frequent in philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists than in the general population.[36][unreliable fringe source?] In a 2015 study, Iceland scientists found that people in creative professions are 25% more likely to have gene variants that increase the risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia,[37] with deCODE Genetics co-founder Kári Stefánsson saying, "Often, when people are creating something new, they end up straddling between sanity and insanity. I think these results support the concept of the mad genius."[38]

Bipolar disorder[edit]

Many famous historical figures gifted with creative talents may have been affected by bipolar disorder. Ludwig van Beethoven, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Isaac Newton, Judy Garland, Jaco Pastorius and Robert Schumann are some people whose lives have been researched to discover signs of mood disorder.[39] In many instances, creativity and mania - the overwhelming highs that bipolar individuals often experience - share some common traits, such as a tendency for "thinking outside the box," flights of ideas, the speeding up of thoughts and heightened perception of visual, auditory and somatic stimuli.

It has been found that the brains of creative people are more open to environmental stimuli due to smaller amounts of latent inhibition, an individual's unconscious capacity to ignore unimportant stimuli. While the absence of this ability is associated with psychosis, it has also been found to contribute to original thinking.[40][unreliable medical source?]


Many people with bipolar disorder may feel powerful emotions during both depressive and manic phases, potentially aiding in creativity.[41][unreliable medical source?] Because (hypo)mania decreases social inhibition, performers are often daring and bold. As a consequence, creators commonly exhibit characteristics often associated with mental illness. The frequency and intensity of these symptoms appear to vary according to the magnitude and domain of creative achievement. At the same time, these symptoms are not equivalent to the full-blown psychopathology of a clinical manic episode which, by definition, entails significant impairment.[42][unreliable medical source?]

Posthumous diagnosis[edit]

Some creative people have been posthumously diagnosed as experiencing bipolar or unipolar disorder based on biographies, letters, correspondence, contemporaneous accounts, or other anecdotal material, most notably in Kay Redfield Jamison's book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.[43][unreliable medical source?] Touched with Fire presents the argument that bipolar disorder, and affective disorders more generally,[44][unreliable medical source?] may be found in a disproportionate number of people in creative professions such as actors, artists, comedians, musicians, authors, performers and poets.

Scholars have also speculated that the visual artist Michelangelo lived with depression. In the book Famous Depressives: Ten Historical Sketches, MJ Van Lieburg argues that elements of depression are prominent in some of Michelangelo's sculptures and poetry. Van Lieburg also draws additional support from Michelangelo's letters to his father in which he states:

"I lead a miserable existence and reck not of life nor honour - that is of this world; I live wearied by stupendous labours and beset by a thousand anxieties. And thus I lived for some fifteen years now and never an hour's happiness have I had."[45]

Positive correlation[edit]

Several recent clinical studies have also suggested that there is a positive correlation between creativity and bipolar disorder, although the relationship between the two is unclear.[46][47][48] Temperament may be an intervening variable.[47] Ambition has also been identified as being linked to creative output in people across the bipolar spectrum.[49] Can Music Make You Sick? Measuring the Price of Musical Ambition [4] by Sally Anne Gross and George Musgrave suggests that high levels of self-reported anxiety and depression amongst musicians can be explained, at least in part, by the nature of musicians' working conditions.

Mental illness and divergent thinking[edit]

In 2017, associate professor of psychiatry Gail Saltz stated that the increased production of divergent thoughts in people with mild-to-moderate mental illnesses leads to greater creative capacities. Saltz argued that the "wavering attention and day-dreamy state" of ADHD, for example, "is also a source of highly original thinking. [...] CEOs of companies such as Ikea and Jetblue have ADHD. Their creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, high energy levels, and disinhibited manner could all be a positive result of their negative affliction."[50] Mania has also been credited with aiding in creativity because "when speed of thinking increases, word associations form more freely, as do flight of ideas, because the manic mind is less inclined to filtering details that, in a normal state, would be dismissed as irrelevant."[35][medical citation needed]

Arguments against a link[edit]

Albert Rothenberg of Psychology Today noted that the "list of mentally ill creators who were successful [...] is dwarfed by the very large number of highly creative people both in modern times and throughout history without evidence of disorder", which includes figures such as William Shakespeare, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Jane Austen.[51][medical citation needed] Rothenberg reported that when interviewing 45 science Nobel laureates for the book Flight from Wonder he had found no evidence of mental illness in any of them, and also stated, "The problem is that the criteria for being creative is never anything very creative. Belonging to an artistic society, or working in art or literature, does not prove a person is creative. But the fact is that many people who have mental illness do try to work in jobs that have to do with art and literature, not because they are good at it, but because they're attracted to it. And that can skew the data."[52][medical citation needed]

Notable individuals[edit]

  • Joanne Greenberg's novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1964) is an autobiographical account of her teenage years in Chestnut Lodge working with Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. At the time she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, although two psychiatrists who examined Greenberg's self-description in the book in 1981 concluded that she did not have schizophrenia, but had extreme depression and somatization disorder.[53] The narrative constantly puts difference between the protagonist's mental illness and her artistic ability. Greenberg is adamant that her creative skills flourished in spite of, not because of, her condition.[54]
  • Brian Wilson (born 1942), founder of the American rock band the Beach Boys, suffers from schizoaffective disorder. In 2002, after undergoing treatment, he spoke of how medication affects his creativity, explaining: "I haven't been able to write anything for three years. I think I need the demons in order to write, but the demons have gone. It bothers me a lot. I've tried and tried, but I just can't seem to find a melody."[55]
  • Daniel Johnston (1961-2019) was a Texas singer-songwriter whose music is often attributed to his psychological issues. In a press release issued by his manager, it was requested that reporters refrain from describing Johnston as a "genius" due to the musician's emotional instabilities. The Guardian's David McNamee argued that "it's almost taboo to say anything critical about Johnston. This is incredibly patronising. For one thing, it makes any honest evaluation of his work impossible."[56]
  • Terry A. Davis (1969–2018) was a computer programmer who created and designed an entire operating system, TempleOS, alongside full 2D and 3D graphics libraries, a programming language (HolyC) and a compiler all by himself. Although his remarks were often incomprehensible or abrasive, he was known to be exceptionally lucid if the topic of discussion was computers. He refused medication for his schizophrenia because he believed it limited his creativity.[57] In 2017, the OS was shown as a part of an outsider art exhibition in Bourgogne, France.[58]
  • Kanye West (born 1977) is an American record producer, rapper, singer, and fashion designer who suffers from bipolar disorder. The creativity in his art and his outspoken views on different topics are sometimes attributed in part to him suffering from bipolar disorder. West has said this on his bipolar disorder, "I can just tell you what I'm feeling at the time, and I feel a heightened connection with the universe when I'm ramping up. It is a health issue. This — it's like a sprained brain, like having a sprained ankle. And if someone has a sprained ankle, you're not going to push on him more. With us, once our brain gets to a point of spraining, people do everything to make it worse."[59]

See also[edit]


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  54. ^ "I wrote [I Never Promised You a Rose Garden] as a way of describing mental illness without the romanticisation [sic] that it underwent in the sixties and seventies when people were taking LSD to simulate what they thought was a liberating experience. During those days, people often confused creativity with insanity. There is no creativity in madness; madness is the opposite of creativity, although people may be creative in spite of being mentally ill." This statement from Greenberg originally appeared on the page for Rose Garden at and has been quoted in many places including Asylum: A Mid-Century Madhouse and Its Lessons About Our Mentally Ill Today, by Enoch Callaway, M.D. (Praeger, 2007), p. 82.
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  59. ^ "Kanye West opens up about his struggle with bipolar disorder: "It's like a sprained brain"". May 30, 2019. Retrieved 2020-10-05.

External links[edit]