The notion that creative people are a little nuts has been around for generations. While that may or may not be true, there is certainly plenty of evidence available to suggest a connection between creative types and mental illness. Aristotle noted, “Those who have been eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.”
Robert Schumann, a German composer, heard voices that guided his music. Van Gogh suffered from episodes of debilitating depression, anxiety and psychosis. Hemingway was riddled with a variety of psychiatric illnesses, including bipolar disorder and alcoholism, which ultimately claimed his life.
One possible factor in this connection is a character trait common in many creative subjects — they are often forced to battle rejection and doubt. They may have to confront criticism or rejection for being too curious, capricious or unconventional. Their perception of their role in the world or of themselves as individuals may crumble. Despite this, their devotion to the craft forces them to endure. Eventually, the person may finally fall off the edge … into depression, anxiety or social alienation. Or, conversely, the already manifested illness may cause the subject to reach for creative pursuits in order to contend with the pain.
There may be another, more scientific reason behind the theory as well. The brain’s creative process is quite similar to what happens during a psychotic episode. Concepts in the brain are loose and streaming in an disorderly fashion. Thoughts are disorganized. When these concepts come together to produce a new idea, the outcome is creativity. If the concepts fail to to come together, or organize to create an irrational idea, the result is psychosis. Occasionally, both processes occur in the same person. The result? A creative person who is also psychotic. As [schizophrenic mathematician] John Nash once said, “The ideas I have about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did, so I took them seriously.”
So, does mental illness promote creativity, whether it be to write a sonnet, compose a symphony, or unravel a mathematical anomaly? Or did the disorder diminish their genius after its initial dazzling burst? Or is the relationship more ornate than a simple one of cause and effect, in either direction?
Depression itself isn’t necessarily a catalyst for creativity. In truth, many creatives have disclosed that they are incapable of working during acute depression.
While unwell, Virginia Woolf created little or nothing and was only productive between spells of depression. From what we can derive from the history of her life and work, it seems the illness was the inspiration for her writings. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Katherine Anne Porter admitted, “I think I’ve only spent about 10% of my energies on writing. The other 90% went to keeping my head above water.”
Of course, mental illness is exponentially more diverse than the diagnoses of depression or anxiety. To date, there are over 300 different psychological disorders listed in the DSM-IV (the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals). The effects of such illnesses vary in nature, causing behavioral, cognitive and emotional changes.
Bipolar disorder, for example, is a more convoluted illness than pop culture would lead one to believe, extending far beyond mood swings. Yet, this particular illness seems to inspire the most genius among artists.
In the early stages of a manic episode (the defining characteristic of bipolar disorder), those afflicted may have a diminished need for sleep, inflated grandiosity and racing thoughts. Increased elation and productivity are also noted. These changes in brain function are often beneficial to creativity; writers and artists have described periods of unprecedented inspiration, frenzied bliss and innovation during hypomania.
Bipolar disorder has been markedly glamorized by this connection, but sufferers of the illness will tell you the experience is far from pleasant. In severe mania, one may have powerful hallucinations and delusions, posing a danger to themselves and others. And eventually, once the high has run its rampant course, oppressive depression settles in.
Surely, altered psychological states due to illness may be valuable, amplifying internal experiences and heightening artistic sensitivity. Unfortunately, it also results in an abstruse and tortuous inner psyche filled with agitation, self doubt and torment.
Some people suffer deeply for their art, and some art springs from suffering. It would be false, however, to state that all creatives are psychologically impaired. Even so, let’s acknowledge the artists who have struggled so passionately with their mental health. After all, those with psychological disorders are not some defective, subservient branch of the human race. And creativity is certainly more complex than I have the aptitude to explain.
“It’s an awful truth that suffering can deepen us, give a greater lustre to our colours, a richer resonance to our words.” – Anne Rice.