Creativity and mental illness

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Parallels can be drawn to connect creativity to major mental disorders including: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and ADHD. For example, numerous studies 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 there is also strong support 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.)[1] 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, 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. [2] 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). 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.[3]


The creative arts is a form of therapy for those recovering from a mental illness or addiction.

A study by psychologist J. Philippe Rushton found creativity to correlate with intelligence and psychoticism.[4]

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.[5] This study hypothesizes 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[6][7] and hypomanic personality[8] and several 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.[9]

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.[10]

However, as a group, those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from 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.[10]

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.[11] 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.

According to psychologist Robert Epstein, creativity can be obstructed through stress.[12]

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.[13]

Positive mood does not inhibit creativity[edit]

Mood-creativity research reveals that people are most creative when they are in a positive mood[14][15] and that mental illnesses such as depression or schizophrenia actually decrease creativity.[16][17] People who have worked in the field of arts throughout the history have had problems with poverty, persecution, social alienation, psychological trauma, substance abuse, high stress [18] 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. 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 spacial capacity to expand another increases beyond "the norm" allowing enhanced growth and development.

Lessons from computational psychology[edit]

Simulations by Stephen Thaler of limbo-thalamo-cortical loops engaged in invention, discovery, and artistic endeavors reveal a critical link between various psychopathologies and creativity. These contemplative artificial neural systems exploit the computational equivalent of volume-released neurotransmitters, namely random, hopping disturbances applied to connection weights in a process tantamount to neuromodulation, the diffusive molecular infiltration of the brain's synapses.[19][20][21] These disturbances seed the formation of the novel neural activation patterns necessary for creativity.[22][23][21][20] Close observation of such artificial neural systems as they engage in creative problem solving tasks reveals a cyclic or ‘tidal’ variation in synaptic chaos. At higher disturbance levels, ideas form as the memories and confabulations absorbed within multiple neural modules weakly couple into transient, subliminal notions that go unnoticed by critic neural modules incapacitated by the synaptic chaos. As disturbance levels subside, certain neural modules may lucidly perceive novelty, utility, or value to these oftentimes half-baked notions that then perfect themselves, consolidating into full-blown ideas coupled with accompanying affective responses. Extending these computational findings to human cognition, creativity cannot be attributed to any given brain state or mood. Instead, it is a hysteretic effect brought about by multiple transits through chaotic and quiescent phases. The more intense these swings, the more novel the creative product, but at the expense of increasingly severe cognitive pathologies, including hallucinations, confusion, inattention to the external environment, and inability to differentiate imagination from reality.[22] In addition to providing a transparent artificial neural system by which to study creative cognition, such brain simulations provide evaluation metrics for originality and utility that are quantitative rather than subjective.[23]

Bipolar disorder[edit]

Main article: Bipolar disorder

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.[24]


Main article: Schizophrenia

People with schizophrenia live with positive, negative, and cognitive symptoms. Positive symptoms (psychotic behaviors that are not present in healthy people): hallucinations, delusions, thought & movement disorders. Negative symptoms (abnormal functioning of emotions and behavior): "flat affect", Anhedonia, reserved. Cognitive symptoms: problems with "executive functioning", attention, and memory.[25] One artist known for his schizophrenia was the Frenchman Antonin Artaud, founder of the Theatre of Cruelty movement.

Arguments that support link[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 and Robert Schumann are some people whose lives have been researched to discover signs of mood disorder.[26] In many instances, creativity and psychosis share some common traits, such as a tendency for "thinking outside the box," flights of ideas, speeding up of thoughts and heightened perception of visual, auditory and somatic stimuli.


Many people with bipolar disorder may feel powerful emotions during both depressive and manic phases, potentially aiding in creativity.[27] 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.[28]

Posthumous diagnosis[edit]

Some creative people have been posthumously diagnosed as suffering from 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.[29] Touched With Fire presents the argument that bipolar disorder, and affective disorders more generally,[30] may be found in a disproportionate number of people in creative professions such as actors, artists, comedians, musicians, authors, performers and poets.

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.[31][32][33] Temperament may be an intervening variable.[32] Ambition has also been identified as being linked to creative output in people across the bipolar spectrum.[34]

Bottom-up psychology[edit]

Brain simulations built from artificial neural nets manifest the classic psychopathologies as they push themselves toward higher levels of creativity.[22]

Modern cultural viewpoints[edit]

The 2012 book Tortured Artists, by the American arts journalist Christopher Zara, shows the universal nature of the tortured artist stereotype and how it applies to all of the creative disciplines, including film, theater, literature, music, and visual art. The artists profiled in the book have made major contributions to their respective mediums (Charles Schulz, Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce, Michelangelo, Madonna, Andy Warhol, Amy Winehouse, and dozens of others). In each case, the author attempts to make a connection between the art and the artist's personal suffering.[35]


"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." ~ Albert Einstein

"Creativity is intelligence having fun." ~ Albert Einstein

Notable individuals[edit]

Albert Einstein had a son with schizophrenia and was also somewhat schizotypal and eccentric.[3]

Bertrand Russell had many family members who may have had schizophrenia or psychosis: his aunt, uncle, son and grand-daughter.[3]

Joanne Greenberg's novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden 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.[36] 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.[37]

Lizz Brady is a contemporary artist who has made work about her experiences with borderline personality disorder and is curator of the exhibition Broken Grey Wires that examines the relationship between contemporary art and mental health.[38]

The modernist and early Feminist Virginia Woolf is speculated to have had bipolar disorder.[39]

David Foster Wallace was an American writer and professor of English and creative writing. He had psychiatric treatment for much of his life and several diagnoses. He believed that "atypical depression" most closely described his condition. He killed himself in 2008.[40]

Brian Wilson, founder of the American rock band the Beach Boys, suffers from schizoaffective disorder. In 2002, he spoke of how the disorder 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."[41]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Goodwin, F. and Jamison, K. R., Manic Depressive Illness, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 1990), p. 353.
  2. ^ Kaufman, James C. "Two." Creativity and Mental Illness. United Kingdom: Cambridge U House, 2014. 31-38. Print.
  3. ^ a b c Andreasen, N.C. (2011), "A journey into chaos: Creativity and the unconscious", Mens Sana Monographs, 9:1, p 42–53. Retrieved 2011-03-27
  4. ^ (Rushton, 1990)
  5. ^ (Actual paper)
  6. ^ Batey, M. Furnham, A. (2009). The relationship between creativity, schizotypy and intelligence. Individual Differences Research, 7, p. 272–284.
  7. ^ Batey, M. & Furnham, A. (2008). The relationship between measures of creativity and schizotypy. Personality and Individual Differences, 45, p. 816–821.
  8. ^ Furnham, A., Batey, M., Anand, K. & Manfield, J. (2008). Personality, hypomania, intelligence and creativity. Personality and Individual Differences, 44, p. 1060–1069.
  9. ^ Kyaga, S.; Lichtenstein, P.; Boman, M.; Hultman, C.; Långström, N.; Landén, M. (2011). "Creativity and mental disorder: Family study of 300 000 people with severe mental disorder". The British Journal of Psychiatry. 199 (5): 373–379. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.110.085316. PMID 21653945. 
  10. ^ a b Roberts, Michelle. Creativity 'closely entwined with mental illness'. 16 October 2012.
  11. ^ Karol J. Borowiecki, "How Are You, My Dearest Mozart? Well-being and Creativity of Three Famous Composers Based on their Letters" SDU Discussion Papers of Business and Economics, Number 20, 2013.
  12. ^ The science of creativity
  13. ^ Children Of Bipolar Parents Score Higher On Creativity Test, Stanford Study Finds
  14. ^ Mark A. Davis (January 2009). "Understanding the relationship between mood and creativity: A meta-analysis". Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 100 (1): 25–38. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2008.04.001. 
  15. ^ Baas, Matthijs; De Dreu Carsten K. W. & Nijstad, Bernard A. (November 2008). "A meta-analysis of 25 years of mood-creativity research: Hedonic tone, activation, or regulatory focus?" (PDF). Psychological Bulletin. 134 (6): 779–806. doi:10.1037/a0012815. PMID 18954157. 
  16. ^ Takahiro Nemotoa; Ryoko Yamazawaa; Hiroyuki Kobayashia; Nobuharu Fujitaa; Bun Chinoa; Chiyo Fujiid; Haruo Kashimaa; Yuri Rassovskye; Michael F. Greenc; Masafumi Mizunof (November 2009). "Cognitive training for divergent thinking in schizophrenia: A pilot study". Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry. 33 (8): 1533–1536. doi:10.1016/j.pnpbp.2009.08.015. PMID 19733608. 
  17. ^ Flaherty AW (2005). "Frontotemporal and dopaminergic control of idea generation and creative drive". J Comp Neurol. 493 (1): 147–53. doi:10.1002/cne.20768. PMC 2571074Freely accessible. PMID 16254989. 
  18. ^ Arnold M. Ludwig (1995) The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy ISBN 978-0-89862-839-5
  19. ^ Thaler, S.L. (1997). U.S. Patent No. 5,659,666, Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
  20. ^ a b S.L. Thaler, A quantitative model of seminal cognition: the creativity machine paradigm (US Patent 5,659,666), Dublin Ireland: Mind II Conference, 1997.
  21. ^ a b Thaler, SL. Creativity machine paradigm. in: E.G. Carayannis (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Creativity, Invention, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship. Springer Reference, ; 2013 (ISBN 978-1-4614-3857-1).
  22. ^ a b c Thaler, SL, Cycles of insanity and creativity within contemplative neural systems, Medical Hypotheses. 2016. 94:138-147, DOI:
  23. ^ a b Thaler, SL. Synaptic perturbation and consciousness. Int. J. Machine Consciousness. 2014;6:75–107.
  24. ^ Parker, G., (ed.) "Bipolar II Disorder: modeling, measuring and managing", Cambridge University Press (Cambridge,2005).
  25. ^ "Schizophrenia". Retrieved 2015-11-27. 
  26. ^ Goodnick,P.J. (ed.) Mania: clinical and research perspectives. American Psychiatric Press,Washington,1998.
  27. ^ Are Genius and Madness Related? Contemporary Answers to an Ancient Question | Psychiatric Times
  28. ^ Dean Keith Simonton (June 2005). "Are Genius and Madness Related? Contemporary Answers to an Ancient Question". Psychiatric Times. Retrieved 2007-02-20. 
  29. ^ Kay Redfield Jamison (1996). Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. Free Press. ISBN 978-0-684-83183-1. 
  30. ^ Jamison, K. R., Touched with Fire, Free Press (New York, 1993), pp 82 ff.
  31. ^ Santosa CM, Strong CM, Nowakowska C, Wang PW, Rennicke CM, Ketter TA (June 2007). "Enhanced creativity in bipolar disorder patients: a controlled study". J Affect Disord. 100 (1–3): 31–9. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2006.10.013. PMID 17126406. 
  32. ^ a b Rihmer Z, Gonda X, Rihmer A (2006). "[Creativity and mental illness]". Psychiatr Hung (in Hungarian). 21 (4): 288–94. PMID 17170470. 
  33. ^ Nowakowska C, Strong CM, Santosa CM, Wang PW, Ketter TA (March 2005). "Temperamental commonalities and differences in euthymic mood disorder patients, creative controls, and healthy controls". J Affect Disord. 85 (1–2): 207–15. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2003.11.012. PMID 15780691. 
  34. ^ Johnson SL, Murray G, Hou S, Staudenmaier PJ, Freeman MA, Michalak EE; CREST.BD. (2015). "Creativity is linked to ambition across the bipolar spectrum.". J Affect Disord. 178 (Jun 1): 160–4. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2015.02.021. PMID 25837549. 
  35. ^ Zara, Christopher (2012). Tortured Artists. Avon, Mass: Adams Media. p. 272. ISBN 1-4405-3003-3. 
  36. ^ Sobel, Dava (February 17, 1981). "Schizophrenia In Popular Books: A Study Finds Too Much Hope". The New York Times. 
  37. ^ "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.
  38. ^ Brady, Lizz (25 September 2014). "Broken wires, healing minds". The Lancet. 1 (5): e6. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(14)70284-6. Retrieved 16 February 2015. 
  39. ^ "NAMI | Virginia Woolf - You Are Not Alone". Retrieved 2015-11-27. 
  40. ^ Dave McGinn, "David Foster Wallace’s biographer tackles author’s battle with depression". The Globe and Mail, Feb. 15, 2013. Interview with Wallace's biographer D.T. Max, author of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.
  41. ^ O'Hagan, Sean. "Feature: A Boy's Own Story". Review, The Observer. Guardian Media Group (January 6, 2002): 1–3. 

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