The Myth of the Mentally Ill Creative

You may believe in some variant of this myth: Creative people are more likely to be mentally ill than non-creative people; artists and writers are more likely to be alcoholics, clinically depressed, or commit suicide.  Anyone can think of at least one famous artist or writer who committed suicide (Hemingway, Plath) or did some other crazy thing (Van Gogh cutting off his ear).

I call this a “myth” because there’s no solid scientific evidence for it.  And there’s a pretty large amount of scientific evidence that creativity is associated with positive moods, happiness, and healthy lives.  There’s also a large amount of evidence that creativity is based in ordinary cognitive processes, not in a distinct brain region; that means that there could be no brain mechanism through which mental illness could affect creativity distinctly.  In other words, creativity is intimately tied with normal brain functioning, so if creativity is impacted then so is everything else our brain does.

The myth originated in the Romantic era, as I describe in detail in my 2006 book Explaining Creativity.  It has received an aura of scientific respectability in recent years, with a few rather small studies gaining a lot of media attention.  (And some being expanded into book-length treatments.)  I’ve just read a journal article by Judith Schlesinger* questioning the methodologies and the media interpretations of the most-cited publications reporting links between creativity and mental illness: those by Andreasen, Ludwig, and Jamison.  The article is a little bit strident for an academic journal article; between the lines of academic prose I can sense a bit of frustration on Schlesinger’s part: “I can’t believe anyone takes this stuff seriously!” she seems to be thinking.  I was surprised not to see any citations to the creativity experts who have gone on record claiming there is no link between creativity and madness: Weisberg, the creative cognition scholars, myself, a special issue of the Creativity Research Journal (2000-2001 volume 13 issue 1) although Simonton gets a mention for his  work.

The good news is that there’s no evidence that mild levels of mood disorder interfere with creativity.  (Although there haven’t been very good studies done of this possibility.)  However, severe mental illnesses generally result in reduced creativity.

I hope you will comment on this post, but keep in mind that one example of a creative and mentally ill person does not constitute scientific proof of a causal link.  That’s because a statistical connection also has to consider all of the mentally ill people who are not creative, and all of the creative people who are not mentally ill.  The only way to evaluate the myth is with large datasets and rigorously gathered data and diagnosis of the participants in the study.  And no such study has demonstrated a firm correlation; much less, a causal link.

Kudos to Schlesinger for publishing an article that I’m sure will get her some challenging and maybe even angry emails from various people who are deeply committed to this myth.

*Schlesinger, Judith. 2009. Creative misconceptions: A closer look at the evidence for the “mad genius” hypothesis. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Vol. 3, No. 2, 62-72.

67 thoughts on “The Myth of the Mentally Ill Creative

  1. You write: “…there’s no evidence that mild levels of mood disorder interfere with creativity. (Although there haven’t been very good studies done of this possibility.) However, severe mental illnesses generally result in reduced creativity.”
    I have read a fair amount on the subject, from Kay Redfield Jamison’s “Touched with Fire,” to Peter Kramer’s, “Against Depression,” because being someone who is both bipolar and creative I’ve always wondered where (as well as how and why) my creativity manifests itself. But several things crossed my path in the past few weeks that make me wonder, “Who the hell cares and what the hell difference does it make?” I mean no disrespect. I myself thought it was a relevant question until recently.

    But I have watched “Boy Interrupted” a few times this week, and seeing that boy’s pain (and being able to relate to it on many levels) and seeing his family’s anguish, I have to wonder, aren’t there more pressing questions. Aren’t there more immediate issues that need to be addressed?

    I am not sure what you mean by “mild level of mood disorder.” Do you mean I’m more likely to be creative if my current state of depression were a three as opposed to an eight on a scale of one to ten? Personally, it doesn’t matter what level I’m at. Any deviation from the “norm,” or what I might perceive as the norm (a state of just being without any “biochemical” fluctuation) throws me off my game.

    And what if we do find some correlation in the future? Will I be given the opportunity to abandon my rollercoaster emotional life along with my creative bent? Because I’ll tell you right now, I’ll take it. I would happily give up my penchant for writing short stories in the middle of the night in exchange for a good night’s sleep and a sunrise that brings a safe and predictable mood.

    I believe that creativity and mental health are independent of each other, but that one influences the other. My depression makes it a struggle to be creative and my creativity makes the depression bearable (if that makes sense.) One is not “caused” by the other.

    That’s my two cents, for what it’s worth. Sorry for the long response, but I’m in a manic phase right now and your post pushed a button.
    Regards, Marco

    1. Thank you, I appreciate your comment. I agree that for the most part, people who suffer from mental illness such as depression say that it interferes with their creativity. In my book Explaining Creativity, I quote Silvia Plath saying that her depression blocked her writing creativity and that she wished it would go away. (And she’s one of the famous creatives who are often cited as evidence of a creativity and madness link.) When I say “no evidence that mild” detracts from creativity, by “mild” I meant non-diagnosed. (The research that is often cited as evidence in support of a creativity-madness link is flawed by including many individuals who are probably not clinical-level but who sometimes seem to be a little bit depressed or a little bit anxious…the criteria used are usually not rigorous and that’s one criticism of the madness-creativity studies.)

    2. Hi Marco,

      You’ve absolutely nailed it: there is no legitimate proof that bipolar disorder and creativity are related — not just causally, but in any way. Unfortunately, the official (DSM) criteria for mania are so close to the reality of creative inspiration that, on paper at least, it’s impossible to pry them apart.
      SHAMELESS PLUG DEPT: I tackle this and many other troublesome fictions in my book, “The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius,” which is in the throes of being edited, and is due out in the fall.

    3. I love your comment my depression makes it a struggle to be creative but the creativity makes the depression bearable being bipolar myself that’s the best explanation I’ve ever heard…..completely makes sense…..absolutely love it

  2. This may or may not have any relevance to your concerns but as a long term sufferer of anxiety disorder and depression I wonder if there is a relationship between my frustrated creativity [ I studied Fine Art at University but have little time for creative practice due to the demands of having to earn a living and bringing up a young family] and my mental health issues. I teach Art in a college for 16-18 year olds in England, and whilst I relish the creative challenge of working with my wonderful students I find the constant giving [away] of my creative energy very draining. Consequently I have little energy or time for my own creative output and this I feel is linked very closely to my depression.

    1. It’s true that pursuing a creative path is often frustrating…from lack of time, or need to work at a “real job” for money, or from lack of success finding an audience. And all of those frustrations could be a risk factor for depression. This is one reason that even if research identifies a correlation between artists and depression (and I don’t think the research has found that correlation, but others have argued that there is), it might not be the case that depression makes you an artist–it might be the case that there’s something about pursuing art as an occupation results in a greater propensity for anxiety/depression.

      1. Hi Keith,
        You’re so right:research hasn’t found any substantive correlation between artists and depression. In fact, the sloppiness of these studies can be embarrassing. But instead of pushing a diagnostic label on every mood fluctuation, why not just consider the possibility that expending all your energy on your students, leaving little for your own projects, has more to do with simple fatigue and frustration than any pathological disorder?
        And yes, there is definitely something about being an artist that makes you vulnerable to depression: the lack of financial security or even reasonable payment for your efforts, the stress on your relationships, the difficulty of obtaining critical acceptance or praise, the struggle to get a showing
        (or a gig), etc., etc. This is all REAL stuff. No DSM required!

  3. “There’s also a large amount of evidence that creativity is based in ordinary cognitive processes, not in a distinct brain region; that means that there could be no brain mechanism through which mental illness could affect creativity distinctly.“
    Well, I’m glad to have that settled. I’ll be interested in seeing your Fucntional MRI studies that demonstrate the lack of a creativity center in the brain.
    But did anyone ever claimed that artists were troubled because their Creativity Centers were especially prone to insult (physical insult, I mean; it does seem to be true that artists don’t tolerate verbal insults well). Is it not more logical to conclude that the same experiences that make them creative also make them prone to mental illness? Or that the impoverished lifestyle that often follows from the choice of an art career leads to mental illness? Or, possibly, that anguished people sometimes self-medicate with art therapy? Which, btw, is a much better strategy than visiting a psychologist or psychiatrist. A few ECT’s may cure your art impulses, but they’re not likely to help your depression.

    ~ John Mayer

    1. Yes, that quotation is true…and in addition, there has never been an fMRI study that has found a creativity center in the brain. Of course, like all higher cognitive functions, certain sorts of creative tasks are statistically more associated with certain frontal lobe regions, but these are the same regions that are associated with all sorts of “non creative” everyday tasks. And different creative tasks are associated with different regions. There is no brain region that is a “creativity spot” dedicated to creativity.

      I think there’s something to your hypothesis, that criticism and rejection could lead to a negative mental state. Certain artistic lifestyles could lead to a higher propensity to mental illness (depression, alcoholism, etc.) But the “creativity and mental illness” myth says much more than that: it says that the mental illness actually enhances the creativity. I claim the evidence for this is minimal to non existent.

      1. Enhanced creativity happens when a person allows themselves to think beyond the boundaries of what is generally accepted as true and what is “known”.

        Stepping into the unknown is a scary thing to do, and few have the emotional tools to cope with it.

        It is more normal to be depressed or have some kind of vice than it is to be at peace with oneself and content and confident.

        I’ve seen very few songwriters in my life who composed a great because they were perfectly balanced. Mediocre songs yes, great songs no. It’s problem solving, most of the time. I don’t think it is possible to be creative if one has no problem to solve.

        Thus, it makes better sense to say that those who are more challenged, who must wrestle with a propensity to feel to a greater extreme, TEND to be more creative. They must in order to survive. You can’t run a marathon if the most effort you put into your legs is walking to your car and through the Food Lion. Creativity comes easier to those who are naturally challenged. I bet a dude who lives in the mountains of Peru and walks 2 miles to get water can beat me in a foot race. He’s naturally more challenged and in better shape.

        In the same way, a Bipolar person is challenged more than a “normal” person and must master a greater level of cognitive coping skills. Ergo, they tend to be more creative.

        How many men out there know what making a baby and giving birth is like? They can’t even fathom it, except through the multimedia experience of watching, listening, feeling their own feelings about it within the scope of their individual capacity to comprehend any of the signals coming in from those senses. Women and men are challenged to communicate to each other about those things that are unknown.

        I know a guy who lost his legs, but has become super creative and innovative about getting around on his own. Why are you saying then that creativity and mental illness aren’t partners…that it’s a myth?

        I totally disagree.

        Communicating something from the murky planes of the unseen and the unknown, in a language or form that we can understand within the limits of our ability is what art and creativity accomplishes. That’s innovation. It’s why wanna-be “creatives” run the gamut of seeking out spiritual mediums or some kind of drug. It’s also why others are doing the same seeking a means of coping with their greater range of emotional depths. It’s helpful to be able to describe it somehow to others, but how do you put something into words that has no words to associate with it? Shall we stick with a scale of 1 to 10, like the doctors do with pain?
        Or can we be a little more creative…without being called crazy.

        The earth is flat, and all that rot…

    2. I totally agree with you. I am one of those that “self-medicate” with creating things and writing. I’d rather do that than go on prescription drugs

    3. I don’t know about any experiences that ‘make a person creative’, but I have met others, in addition to myself, who accredit boredom with being a precursor to their art-oriented activities. The fact that ‘arting’ is “therapeutic” does not mean that anyone is sick. It just means that doing something is more fun than doing nothing. Rene Magitte apparently declared that he had to do someting ( in his life) ‘so’ he painted. I think the biggest problem that artists ‘suffer’ is the chasm between their easel and a show-place, alongside of the populist nonsense attributed to “artists” who are often no more than ‘people-with- a-brush-who-use-it’.

  4. I agree partially with what you’ve expressed here but I think you must agree that pretty much any discussion that centers around the mind becomes quite complex.
    I don’t know how far back it started but it was obvious what musicians were doing in the 60’s & 70’s with “mind altering” drugs. They felt they needed a boost to create new, fresh ideas for their art. And, if they did it right, it worked. Taking their brain on a temporary trip into insanity. For most of the artists they were then able to come back down enough to actually create and perform with this new found vision. (Although,in hindsight, a lot of it was just pure crap. :-))
    Someone with a permanent mental illness may not have the advantage of coming back into reality so they can then apply their unique insights. But, then again, some do. I think especially bi-polar. Mental illness is a spectrum. Mild, moderate, severe. Dual-diagnosis…
    I have told my son about him being creative. “Most people have to LEARN to the think outside the box…You ARE outside the box! Use that to your advantage.”

    1. And jazz musicians were smoking marijuana long before the 1960s.

      In spite of the often-noted relationship between musicians and drugs, there’s no research evidence that drug usage is correlated with higher creativity. That could be in part because constructing a valid experimental study would be almost impossible. But also note there are lots of creative musicians who never touched drugs. (The European classical tradition is not associated with drugs: Bach, Stravinsky, Debussy, Chopin; nor are orchestra musicians or conductors; nor are bluegrass or polka musicians; nor are Indian sitar players, etc.)

      1. Again, you’ve got it, Keith: there’s no evidence that drug use and higher musical creativity are connected. But because there were some jazz icons (like Bird, for instance) who were drug-addicted, many wannabe players thought by taking drugs themselves, they would have access to the same exalted realms. Nodding out was “the look” that signified musical brilliance.
        This myth took a tremendous toll on many people.

        The fact is, making serious music in any field- especially composing – requires so much cognitive complexity that the process is undermined, not enhanced, by drug addlement.

  5. I am not encouraging drug use. In my profession (software engineering) like many people, my drug of choice is caffeine. But, in some other less technical effort I could easily see myself having a glass or two of wine to relax and help ignore some of the other problems of the day. And, this could help get my creative juices going. So, who are we to say that some people can’t be helped with their creativity with some type of drug.

    I find that pot makes me slightly paranoid. I guess if I was going to start writing some suspense novel I might dabble with some pot.

    But, your argument that lots of great artists never used drugs doesn’t mean that no great artist never used drugs. If someone doesn’t have ADD and they take an ADD med they probably will not receive any benefit. If an artist’s brain chemistry is not allowing him to be creative because that’s the way his brain was made, then altering that chemistry with a drug may, or may not get him some better results.

    But, again, we’re talking about a complex issue. Define “creative”. It doesn’t have to be necessarily “good” or “popular” but it’s usually different or new.

  6. Yes, some very creative people have used drugs. And some very creative people have displayed mental illness. And some very short people are creative, too. But to see if there’s a connection, you’d have to show (1) that when comparing all drug users to all non drug users, a higher percentage of the drug users are creative, and a lower percentage of the non-drug users are; and then if that’s true, (2) show that the causal relationship goes from drug use to increased creativity, rather than the other way (being creative makes you use drugs) or due to some third factor (just for demonstration’s sake, let’s say the third factor is living in a larger urban area–which could cause both more propensity to drug use and more participation in the arts).

    That kind of large-scale statistical study doesn’t capture individual differences, your proposal that some people might be made more creative by drug use whereas others might not. I agree it’s complex.

  7. Greetings – nice to see my article provoking such interesting discussion!

    Please note: I don’t discount any colleagues who writes about the lack of a proven empirical connection between creativity and madness. In fact, I’m delighted to see it. [Keith: I’m citing your excellent book in my own, which is underway.]

    But the focus of the May 2009 article was very specific: all the nonsense perpetuated by Jamison, Andreasen, and Ludwig that keeps getting passed along, in both the popular and professional press, as “science.” My intent was to whistle through the gaping holes in their methodologies and conclusions, since it appears that too few psychologists have taken a close (or any!) look at the originals. It’s nothing less than a public disservice to keep pretending this stuff is solid and strong.

    After two decades of monitoring too many smug and baseless pronouncements about the “bipolar creative” — and their wide acceptance by people who should know better — you bet your sweet patootie I’m frustrated!!!

    1. Thank you for your posting (and for your article). In my textbook overview of creativity research, Explaining Creativity (Oxford, 2006) I say there is no evidence of a link between creativity and mental illness. Two other textbooks on creativity research that were published just after mine say the same. Weisberg’s 2006 book states the lack of research evidence quite firmly; Runco’s 2006 book hedges a bit, he reports both sides of this “controversial notion” and remains neutral, but concludes “there are a number of possible flaws and biases in the research” (p. 152). So I would say that among creativity researchers, “everybody knows” there is no proof of a link, but this is a very strongly held belief among the general population and that’s why it persists.

  8. Thanks for your reply. I like Weisberg’s book too. And your 2003 “Group Creativity” as well. You aren’t an avocational jazz musician by any chance, are you? I seem to detect fanhood, at least… (FWIW, my other hats include jazz critic/musician).

    I wish it were true that “everybody knows” (and says) there’s no proof, but I haven’t found that to be the case. Alas.

    For example, Nancy Andreasen, in her 2005 “The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius,” is still defending both her and Jamison’s original studies, the latter of which she declares to be “convincing.” Then we have “Understanding Creativity” (2004) by Jane Piirto, who cites both Rothenberg and myself as naysayers, then goes on to claim that “studies by Jamison and Andreasen affirmed the connection of creativity with manic-depressive illness;” she also respectfully cites Ludwig’s “Price of Greatness” (p. 76). Her book was blurbed by Simonton, of all people, as being the most “comprehensive” creativity text. Even more surprising is the chapter by Abuhamdeh and (the also usually wonderful) Czikszentmihalyi in Sternberg et al’s APA-produced “Creativity: From Potential to Realization” (2004) where they refer to Ludwig’s work as providing “compelling empirical support” for something; true, it’s not the mad genius idea, precisely, but Ludwig’s methods were notoriously non-empirical, and should be identified as such. In the same volume, embedded in otherwise valuable prose, both Feist and Simonton casually cite both Jamison and Ludwig as if they were credible.

    There’s more, but that’s enough for this time and space. Eveyr day I get less angry and more resigned. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “and so it goes.”

    Re: general population: I do agree that the mad genius thing is far too popular, and satisfies too many psychological needs, to ever disappear – no matter how unscientific the notion may be.
    But that’s a separate issue from what professionals choose to do.

    My two cents.

    1. I stand corrected, it seems that not “everybody” knows. I’ve met Nancy Andreasen and she is a wonderful person, by the way. Maybe we should all get together at some APA event and work this out.

  9. I’m writing as a psychoanalyst who works in São Paulo, Brazil, and also as a human being. I often think to myself “why are some people criticized or put down because of their qualities or gifts” ? “He plays soccer as a genius, but he’s a bully outside the stadium”. “She paints marvelously but she is very tempered”. “His aggressive behavior makes him a very successful CEO but as a father…”

    Often what comes after the word “but” diminishes or shadows what comes before the “but”, as “he is creative but he’s mad”.

    Well, if this is a constant thought in the majority of the human beings, couldn’t we might as well start thinking if the reason for this myth (always considering that we don’t have sufficient data to confirm this theory) resides in a mental fact which is present in many people and which is called Envy ?

    The main attribute of Envy, as we all know, is the destroying character of the feeling, or in simple words, if someone has what I don’t and I can’t bear it, I might ( unconsciously through my Envy) wish to destroy him. Maybe we could think that creative people have something that “normal” people don’t and as humanity has the tendency to homogene itself, one of the defense mechanisms could be to disregard – through Envy – the creative as a not normal person, or as a mad person…

    Pardon my English !

    1. That’s a good point, I think you’re right. The myth allows people to unconsciously think “Being creative might be nice, but I’m glad I’m not creative because I like being normal (and creative people are not normal)”.

  10. I bet it’s a lot warmer where you are, André!

    Good points, both of you. Envy is a primary motivation for the “mad genius” myth, which enables people to say “well, I might not have their talent, but at least I don’t have their problems!!”

    Having said that, you can be content playing your air guitar. !!

    1. Looking at it from a different point of view, the “mad genius myth” might enable people to say “well, they might not be normal, but at least they are intelligent, creative beings”. I should have no saying on the subject as I am a twenty year old first year university student and English is not my first language, but I have read Jamison, Andreasen and Ludwig and I did not find them to be any less credible than your works. I just cited your article “Creative misconceptions: A closer look at the evidence for the “mad genius” hypothesis” in an essay and I found it really interesting, although criticizing other people’s work is not as convincing as finding some scientific evidence of your own. I hope to see some of that in the future. In the meanwhile, I like to stick with the romantic, non-scientific myth, as it at least enables the “mad geniuses” to see some positive in their situation. I apologize for my bad English!

  11. A little bit of folk

    It’s not uncommon to see in Brazilian car’s rear windows, stickers that could be translated as: “Envy, if it doesn’t kill it cripples”…

  12. I just found this blog and i must say, it has opened a Pandora’s Box of questions for me.

    I am a Musician/Guitar Teacher who has played Guitar since 1989(age 13). I have always had a deep love and spiritual connection to music, and have been very creative in arts, etc…

    i was diagnosed Bi-Polar-NOS in 2010 after being hospitalized for the second time in a mental ward for very manic/delusional behavior. This was also aided by a severe physical and psychological withdrawl from opiate addiction.

    Now, a little history…I am the son of a Mother who was diagnosed with Dissacociative Identity Disorder in 1995, with a history of drug abuse and a Father who is an Active Alchoholic. I grew up in a disfunctional family of addicts and sexual abuse and DID NOT use drugs/alchohol until 2002, so drugs did not play a part of my own mental problems growing up, nor the need to create. I used Music and creating the music as an escape from the underlying illness i didn’t yet know i had.(I’ve come to this conclusion in hindsight)

    My creative drive and abilty in my teen/early adult years was not tempered by drugs, but may have been INFLUENCED by the underlying bi polar process, but it wasnt until i started using/abusing opiate pain killers in 2002, and then alchohol in 2006, that i really started to feel the effects of the bi polar disease in my creativity.

    I hope I’m not too rambling, but i am in a manic mood myself and need to find meaning in this damn disease in the hopes that now that i am clean and sober and in AA (25 months now) and also on Lithium and Wellbutrin therapy, the creative process for which i was so proud of growing up (untempered by drugs and a “known” mental illness)will re manifest and continue my quality of life that i miss so dearly.

    Thank you for the blog and know that no matter what the muse, Musicians need music in their lives to feel even remotely “normal”

    1. Congratulations on being clean and sober for 25 months!

      The good news is for almost all creatives who have mental illness, they almost all report that they become more creative and more productive after their illness is treated. There is no evidence whatsoever that creativity is reduced by treating the illness.

      1. Nope, no evidence whatsoever.

        But when the mythmakers insist that creativity and mental illness are connected, it’s natural for people to be superstitious that treating the latter will diminish the former.
        In my estimation, that’s one of the most insidious (and dangerous) aspects of the myth.

      2. Thank you for the congrats Dr. Sawyer, and also Thank You for the blog. I was curious to know, is there any books or research geared towards musicians(famous or otherwise) that have been confirmed as both bi polar(or any mental illness) and also drug addicted and the relationship between the two?

        i only ask this because i have been doing my own research and have found so many “like traits” between the various mental illnesses (bi polar spectrum, schizo spectrum etc)and the coorelation with drug addiction and the resluting adverse effects. I thinnk it would be very easy to Misdiagnose someone as “menatlly Ill” when in fact they are a very creative peron going through severe drug dependency withdrawls.

        I feel that my creative drive(bordering on a compulsion when i was younger) may have been tempered by an undiagnosed mental illness as an adolescent, but was ultimately twarted by drugs later in life (like Dr. Schlesinger spoke of with Charlie Parker’s drug abuse)

        Thank you again for your expertise in these matters. It helps creative people like me understand our “gifts” a little better.

      3. I’m not aware of any books like that. You might be interested in the book by Jenny Boyd, with interviews with 75 famous contemporary pop/rock/jazz musicians. Many of them talk about drug usage, but pretty much all of them say that the drugs interfered with their creativity and that they got a lot more creative after they kicked their habits.

        Boyd, J. (1992). Musicians in tune: Seventy-five contemporary musicians discuss the creative process. New York: Simon & Schuster.

  13. Articles and research concerning the benefits of living with bipolarity fascinate me. I am 18 and have recently been unofficially diagnosed by my GP with bipolar disorder. I can relate to some of the article, so I thought that I would share my personal experience.

    From the age of seven, my teachers did not know how to handle me. They threw me in an enhanced learning program and I was designated as an “Exceptional Intellectual”. I am creative, but I think a better way of explaining it would be to say that I have an unmatched ability to make connections. I use this to my advantage on a daily basis, as I have just started as an engineering research assistant at a university. I am currently a part time student as well, but my episodes of depression make it difficult to keep up.

    1. Hi Serena,

      Your English is actually quite good, and it’s encouraging to see young students who are interested in this area. For too long everybody just passed along the “accepted wisdom” that exceptional creativity always comes with great suffering without questioning the idea.

      I’m happy that you read my article, even if you seemed to miss the main point about the lack of scientific evidence in this area. In fact, the concepts of creativity and madness are so slippery, with so many different definitions, methodologies, and measurements, that it’s unlikely that anybody can ever make a truly scientific connection between them. (That includes me, by the way!)

      In any case, as the great Karl Popper said, the first job of education is to take apart the myths.

      I’m working on a book now called “The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the mad genius myth” which should be out early next year. It will answer a lot of questions about the idea – where it started, how it traveled through history, and what keeps it afloat today despite the lack of real evidence.

      One of the main supports is simply that many people prefer to believe in it. It satisfies or helps them in some way. You even touched on that in your comment.

      Anyway…keep asking questions, and best of luck in your studies!

      1. Hi Judith,

        Thank you for your response, it is an honor.
        I do understand your main point about the lack of evidence, which is why I ironically stated in my previous comment that I will stick with the myth-please note I am still calling it a myth. I agree with you about the lack of evidence. However, I do believe Jamison, Andreasen and Ludwig provided us with some interesting results, although such results are far from being scientific evidence. My opinion is that the lack of evidence shows us that the link between mental illness and creativity has not be proven (yet?), but it does not show that this link does not exist. You seem to be very confident when you ensure that the link does not exist. However, you also say that the ‘mad genius’ notion is wrong because it lacks scientific evidence. There is no scientific evidence or studies proving the opposite either- does that not make your opinion wrong as well, if you apply your own argument? As you say, I do like to believe in it. That does not mean that I am sure about it or that I take it as true, but rather that I am keeping open to the possibilities. As Karl Popper said, a theory is only true until it is falsified.

  14. Hi Serena,

    Nicely argued. If you really are just 20, and not debating in your native language, I can only imagine what a force you’ll be by the time you get to graduate school. !

    I didn’t say the link doesn’t exist at all, only that there can never be legitimate scientific backing (or rejection) of it due to a number of insurmountable research obstacles. These are detailed in the book; I don’t have the time or inclination to specify them here. Besides, that would spoil the surprise! ;->

    In some ways the link is already “proven” simply because the DSM definition of mania, and the common understanding of the state of creative inspiration, overlap to such a great extent on paper.

    In any case, the mad genius stereotype is much too attractive and useful to ever go away. I have no illusions that The Insanity Hoax will make that happen: I just want people to think for a moment before confusing the myth with actual fact.

    Happy Easter to all,

  15. As a person who has battled depression, alcoholism (I’m in recovery) and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, I have to say that while I respect your findings, my experience would disagree with your assertion that the link between mental illness and creativity is a myth. I would like to ask: these tests with large datasets and rigorously gathered data and diagnoses of the participants in the study in which no causal link was established—where were they done, with how many people, how many times? As a person intimate with the gaping holes in our medical system, I know that scientific testing and/or tracking is directly proportionate to the profit in it. I wonder just how rigorous a test could be in this case since the profit potential seems slim to non-existent.

    Also, vis-à-vis your assertion that “creativity is based in ordinary cognitive processes, not in a distinct brain region”—I just watched a TED talk with surgeon Charles Limb who did studies at the NIH with jazz pianists and rappers using fMRI studies that link creative improvisation with heightened activity in specific areas of the brain which runs counter to your statement above. He does say that the studies are not yet conclusive, but the results are persuasive.

    Also, since our culture tends either to minimize, ignore, or commodify problems like depression and addiction, I’ve been taught by heuristic impulse to put my personal experience before statistics. I’m a writer, singer, and actor, among other things, and in my experience there’s a definite correlation between depression, alcoholism, and creativity. There are no scientific studies since the program is anonymous, but in the countless 12-step meetings I’ve been to and hundreds of creative people I’ve met, there wasn’t one who didn’t suffer from depression. Lack of scientific evidence notwithstanding, if you look at history’s painters, actors, writers, musicians, filmmakers, composers, and choreographers, etc., a disproportionate number of them suffered from some form of depression or addiction; it’s now a commonly accepted belief that addiction is the brain’s way to medicate depression or a more serious form of mental illness.

    I don’t understand how any scientist who knows creativity and depression intimately could ever state emphatically that they are not the unhappy partners in joyous creation and abysmal despair. Every last writer I admire, with the exception of Wordsworth, perhaps, was a genius tormented by some form of depression and/or addiction. Jung believed that the same impulse that crushes the artist personally also gives him his creative impulse, and in his words, the artist “pays dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire.”

    I suspect more than a few of us wish, at one time or other, that we could be normal people who never think beyond what’s for dinner or planting a garden or playing baseball on a fine summer night. Creativity is not something you decide to do, like becoming a lawyer, for example. It picks you. In its worst form it’s a harsh mistress that demands, condemns, wheedles, frets, agonizes and drives; at other times it’s like being given the remarkable and temporary ability to defy time, space, and gravity.

    We do get to choose *how* we do our art, but we don’t get to choose *that* we do it without severe repercussions. And that is perhaps the mystery that science will never be able to unlock.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences. It is testimony from people like yourself that keeps alive the belief that there may be a link between mental illness and creativity. When a person is suffering from a mental illness, it is of course desirable to believe that there might be some saving grace, some benefit that comes along with the pain. If it helps you to believe in the link, then I won’t object to your belief.
      But my own loyalty is to scientific methods and to proven findings. Regarding your question about the studies that show no link between creativity and mental illness: There are many, from decades ago to the present, and they are with diverse populations. You can read about them in the many books about this research. The findings are quite consistent, and there is no real debate among scholars who know this research.
      I know Charles Limb and his work very well. In this connection, I have an article titled “The cognitive neuroscience of creativity” that will soon be published (Limb’s findings are discussed there along with many others). Limb’s findings (and all of the others) confirm my statement that “creativity is based in ordinary cognitive processes.” The brain regions that are implicated in Limb’s studies are the same regions that are used in many non-creative tasks; they are not specialized for creativity.

    2. Hi Kim,

      Glad to read your articulate and passionate post, and wish I had more time to respond to it. Can only do two comments:

      1) I think you place too much stock in writers’ self-reports of their torment, given how willingly they elaborate on darkness and angst. Certainly they give researchers more ammo than other creative groups who deal in pictures or music or movement. For many writers, suffering is part of carefully self-cultivated image, which society expects and supports.

      2)Charles Lamb showed that jazz musicians who “trade fours” – i.e., play back and forth in response to each other, keeping up a musical dialogue – are “lighting up” the brain areas that everyone uses for expressive verbalization.

      This is good news for all of us jazz fans/players who always knew that such musical dialogue is as meaningful as any other form of personal communication.

      Moreover, you don’t even have to be particularly talented to “speak” and understand this language. Lamb found nothing to indicate that some special “genius” wiring was involved.

  16. “There’s also a large amount of evidence that creativity is based in ordinary cognitive processes, not in a distinct brain region; that means that there could be no brain mechanism through which mental illness could affect creativity distinctly. In other words, creativity is intimately tied with normal brain functioning, so if creativity is impacted then so is everything else our brain does.”

    Not very many creative people around, it can’t be too closely tied to ordinary, everyday cognitive processes.

    Mental illness does impact a lot of what the brain does.

    The usual claim is that a brain prone to mental illness is also often (or always) creative, not that mental illness causes creativity.

  17. “I hope you will comment on this post, but keep in mind that one example of a creative and mentally ill person does not constitute scientific proof of a causal link. That’s because a statistical connection also has to consider all of the mentally ill people who are not creative, and all of the creative people who are not mentally ill. The only way to evaluate the myth is with large datasets and rigorously gathered data and diagnosis of the participants in the study. And no such study has demonstrated a firm correlation; much less, a causal link.”

    I would like to comment on this post. The idea put forth by people like Andreasen is not that mental illness somehow causes creativity in some as yet poorly understood fashion. Rather, it is that healthy individuals who are prone to mental illness are also on average more creative than the general population. Thus, considering creative people who are not mentally ill or mentally ill people who are not creative in a statistical analysis would entirely miss the point.
    Even the identical twin of a person who develops schizophrenia has only a 50% chance of developing the disorder. Clearly, it is very possible to be prone to mental illness and yet never actually develop an illness.

    1. I’m glad that you pointed out the distinction between a “strong” hypothesis, that clinical and diagnosed levels of mental illness are correlated with creativity, and a more nuanced hypothesis that it’s not full-fledged mental illness, but rather an elevated tendency, that is somehow related to higher creativity. I review the evidence for this more nuanced claim in the forthcoming second edition of my book Explaining Creativity (to be published Fall 2011), and after a long discussion of the relevant studies, here is my conclusion:

      “So the most we can say about a link is that some creators, in a limited number of creative domains, in certain European cultures, and in certain historical time periods, may be slightly more towards the mentally ill end of the spectrum even though they’re not clinical. We don’t know whether this tendency, if it exists, precedes and then enhances creativity, or whether the career and financial difficulties inherent in a few select creative domains exaggerate those tendencies in otherwise normal individuals. But the research of almost a century is pretty clear: Clinical levels of mental illness reduce creativity. And in most cases—most creative domains, most cultures—there’s no evidence even for the sub-clinical hypothesis.”

      1. Hi Keith,

        There may not be any evidence for the sub-clinical hypothesis, but there sure is some money to be made there!

        Did you know, for example, that the DSM elves who are busy preparing the next Bible (due in 2013) have been considering the introduction of a category of “conditions” that fall short of “disorders,” but still need treatment? (Gee, I wonder if med$ are involved?!)

      2. Hmmm, I doubt there is reliable data for most cultures in most time periods, Europe included.

      3. That’s right, there is no evidence available. However, based on a study of the anthropology and the history of conceptions of creativity, I can say that there is no belief in a connection between mental illness and creativity in most of the world’s cultures, and such a belief is generally not observed in the Western world until the Romantic era (early 1800s). (You’ll also find these overviews in the second edition of Explaining Creativity.)

      4. I do believe that most of these “non-clinically” mentally ill creative people that you speak of will most likely be diagnosed with some disorder if they were to receive psychiatric evaluations.

      5. Of course, it’s impossible to know. In any case, the great majority of creative people are not even “subclinically” mentally ill, they are completely normal. Advocates of the “creativity and mental illness” hypothesis claim that creative people are mentally ill in greater proportion to non-creative people. All of the large-scale studies that have been done show that creative people have mental illness in the same proportion as noncreative people (or sometimes, in lower proportion), suggesting there is no relation between creativity and mental illness. (e.g., Ellis, 1904; Juda, 1949; Goertzel & Goertzel, 1962/2004; Post, 1994).

  18. That is interesting, but I would point out that schizophrenia is to a degree a disease of the imagination. You can’t actually suffer from schizophrenia without having an active imagination. Most of the world’s cultures must not have noticed or emphasized that fact.

    Still, that does not mean that a heightened imagination disposes one to a risk of madness I suppose.

  19. I won’t say that creativity is linked with mental illness, for I know a few people who are very talented musicians, artists, and writers, etc. However, I will say that I have noticed that those who tend to be moody, insomniacs, depressives, or bipolar tend to produce better music, art, or literature than those who don’t display some form of emotional abnormalcy. In other words, the mentally or emotionally ill(or “abnormal”) produce better creative work. Just google any of the “greats” and you’ll notice that they all suffered from emotional problems. I don’t know why, but it’s just so….

    1. I would argue just the opposite, that there is no biographical evidence that great creators suffer from emotional problems. It’s almost impossible to diagnose people after they’re dead; for all of the writers who argue that one or another genius had emotional problems, they are already attached to the “creativity and madness” hypothesis and their analyses are biased. If they read about one night where some famous person drank too much, they say “Aha! They were an alcoholic!” Or if the person was depressed for a few months after the death of their spouse, “Aha! Evidence of depressed personality disorder!” I reviewed this research at length in Chapter 9 of my 2012 book
      Explaining Creativity.

      1. You’re absolutely right, Keith. The stereotype is so powerful that people need almost nothing to “prove” it – as you say, if someone finds a letter from a dead genius’s mother, and mama is anxious about her son’s behavior, this becomes “clinical evidence” that he was disturbed. Nobody considers the context, or doubts the observer, because they’ve already decided that all geniuses have some kind of disorder, and the smallest bit of hearsay is enough to “confirm” it.

        In fact, there is NO SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE that creative people are any more disturbed than any other group. In fact, psychologists can’t even agree on the definition or measurement of either creativity OR madness – so how can they ever be sure they are connected?

        As you know, all of these controversies are discussed in my 2012 book, “The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the myth of the mad genius.”
        I just did my first NPR interview a few weeks ago. So happy that the message is getting out there!

    2. “It’s just so” mostly because people have chosen to believe it. The mad genius is a beloved stereotype that started with a misinterpretation of Plato’s “divine madness” and has traveled through the centuries to us today, riding on virtually nothing but people’s need for it to be true. Jezillia, I could go on and on about how unnecessarily demeaning this is to both art and artists, and how many talented people are needlessly afraid of the “bipolar” time bomb that’s supposed to be in their heads… I could write a book about it… hey, wait a minute, I did! ;-}

  20. […] Despite these many studies that found no link between creativity and mental illness, in recent decades contemporary researchers have continued to search for evidence to support the Western cultural belief that mental illness is connected to creativity. (Most non-Western cultures do not share this belief.) These more recent studies, when well designed, consistently deliver the same finding: There is no link between creativity and mental illness. (Also see my 2009 blog post here.) […]

  21. This myth may come from the tendency of health professionals to give a box of crayons to sick people who otherwise sit and stare. I make art and have known quite a few artists, and I see no preponderance of evidence to suggest that artists are nuts. I have observed that some neurotic artists ‘play up’ the myth, however. I think that the spotlight of fame that shines on famous artists also dramatizes their troubles while John Doe at the office or Mac the bus driver are not seen under the microscope of ‘historians’. And, of course, some artists, being able to render oddities, as well as ‘normalcies’, may be seen as mad, while normal people keep their lunacies the secret of their bedtime dreaming- which many people don’t trouble to recall. Artists tend to talk with their brushes and discover what really is more common than people acknowedge. To me, the sickest of artists are those who cannot get past painting pretty pictures, which suggests that they paint but decoratively. I have been ‘diagnosed’, but the non-artists in the family are just as crazy!
    The best to you,
    David Wilson

    1. Thank you for your two comments! I agree with something you hint at in your comments: many people have a false image of what artists do and how they create. Art is not simply painting your brilliant inspiration in a burst of mindless creativity. No: Art is hard work, and artists think really hard about what they are doing. Artists make mistakes, they throw out a lot of stuff, and they revise constantly. The many artists I know and have interviewed are extremely articulate about what they are doing, why they are doing it, how it relates to the work of others, and what different paths forward they might take. None of them have any evidence whatsoever of mental illness…and in the case of the artists I know, they don’t even have any real evidence of eccentricity. Here’s one story: I know a very successful artist who makes fun of “artist poseurs” who dress in clothes that “look like artists might wear” and have tattoos and body piercings to look alternative and “creative”. His attitude is: “I’m too busy doing my work to have any time to worry about looking ‘creative’,” and in his opinion, most working artists tend to look ordinary and unexceptional…not at all like crazy “creative types.”

      1. Nod, nod, clap, clap! Keith, so glad you’ve made such a splendid platform here for airing the truth.

        At the same time, I expect the mad genius nonsense will endure forever: it serves too many psychosocial needs to disappear. But I find it unconscionable when psychologists pretend that it’s based on “science” despite all evidence to the contrary.

        The history of the myth is full of people who aspired to be considered geniuses and defined their own depression
        as “proof” of their creative superiority. It goes all the way back to FIcino in the Italian Renaissance, and continues into the modern work of Kay Jamison, which remains influential despite its fundamental flaws.

        Amen to your friend who makes fun of the “artist poseurs”!

        In “The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the myth of the mad genius,” I cite my informal survey of 50 world-class jazz musicians. I e-mailed them just one question: how the stereotype of the crazy artist affected their lives.

        Of the 37 who responded, IF they’d heard about the myth at all, they were too busy working on their music to pay any attention to it. One could argue — and I do! — that in choosing jazz as a profession, they’ve already shrugged off public opinion to a great extent – but it also proves your point that, aside from talent, the essence of artistic creation is diligent and committed effort.

        But hard work isn’t sexy.

    2. You’re absolutely right, David. Non-artists can be every bit as “crazy,” but then where’s the drama in watching a successful accountant succumb to his demons? Who cares?

      And yes, there are some artists that “play up” the myth – in my book (shameless plug department) “The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the myth of the mad genius” (on amazon etc). I use the term “Bohemian excuse” to describe those who adopt the mantle of artistic “madness” to give the impression of genius and thereby acquire some of its perques.

  22. Mentally ill (especially psychotic) people see and feel things normal people do not. If I see and feel things in a different way, I am likely to think in a different way – out of the box. I could say a lot about this. But Dr. Judith, you say, “aside from talent, the essence of artistic creation is diligent and committed effort.” So the mentally ill cannot be diligent and committed? It is very likely that creativity has a lot to do with creativity, but diligence and commitment are required to harness it.

  23. I think the discussion here focusses a little too much on depression and bipolar disorder, where I can see that the evidence is probably slim, and not enough on schizophrenia, psychopathy and severe personality disorders. Anyone interested may like to take a look at the anthology ‘In the Realms of the Unreal: “Insane” Writings’ ed. John GH Oakes (this is not a shameless plug, I had nothing to do with it), which collects writings of psychiatric patients around the world. Some of the ‘outsider’ texts included are very far from mainstream conventional literature and ipso facto exhibit creativity of a high order. (A large part of creativity is the production of a new and unique voice: these voices are entirely unique.) This anthology is not ‘evidence’ as such, since the pieces in it have been carefully selected, but will give anyone pause who thinks that mental ‘illness’ cannot be a contributing factor in the genesis of texts of a high order of originality.

    1. There are lots of individual examples of people with various mental illnesses who have generated interesting work. In my book _Explaining Creativity_ I start by talking about the 1920s study done by Hans Prinzhorn at his clinic of schizophrenic patients, where he got them to start painting and drawing. He published a book of those artworks in 1926, I believe (it’s not hard to find at libraries, you should check it out), and that contributed to the belief that schizophrenia contributes to greater creativity. However, that link turns out to be false–it turns out most of those patients never were able to generate any visual works at all. Statistically, of all schizophrenic patients, fewer of them are creative than the proportion of the healthy population. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to examine the kinds of works those few end up generating.

      1. Yes… I think there is a problem here though, because ‘art therapy’ in which patients are encouraged to draw and paint is a very different thing from ‘literature therapy’, which doesn’t exist in a clinical context as far as I can see. Art therapy goes alongside other types of therapies, talking therapies, workshops etc, and thus there is active encouragement to be creative which ordinary people wouldn’t get as part of daily life. This would tend to skew perceptions of how ‘creative’ psychiatric patients are, which supports your hypothesis.

        My contention is to do with the idea that mental imbalance can contribute to a type of literary experimentation that is actually very hard to find in the mainstream world – the writings of schizophrenics and so on is often reminiscent of modern experimentalists such as Beckett or Ashbery, or even as different from them as they are from traditional writing from each other. The two types of creativity should probably be considered and studied separately.

      2. I’ve been reading this exchange between Keith and Gary with interest. My understanding is that, however free and seemingly innovative schizophrenics’ imagery or word salads may be, their signature disorganization typically interferes with the optimal presentation of their work.

        That’s part of why bipolar disorder is so often indicted instead. It’s actually the psychosis that’s the fascinating part – and supposedly the wellspring of so much art – but while bipolars may visit that realm now and again, they are more often restored to reason, where they can translate their journey more productively.

      3. Thank you for your responses Keith and Judith. I’d like to make some points: firstly, I would tend to agree with you that mental illness does not necessarily dispose people to be more creative than those who are not mentally ill (or not diagnosed/instuitutionalized; there is an obvious problem in agreeing on who is mentally ill). However, that is not the same as saying that the work of people with mental illness is worth less. Judith, you describe the writings of schizophrenics as ‘word salad’. I find this a little dismissive, if I may say so. Would you would say the same about the writings of Tristan Tzara or John Ashbery? Works of literary art are best judged on literary criteria, and we have to use the language of literary criticism to properly understand them, wherever they originate, inside hospitals or outside.

        Secondly, when the products of schizophrenics and psychotics are indeed of a high quality, it would seem idle to deny that the mental illness of these writers is a contributing factor to the finished product. Could Adolf Wolfli (self-described as ‘St. Adolf II Algebrator, Major-Commander and Music-Director, Giant-Theater-Director, Almighty-Steamship-Captain, and Dr. of Art and Science, Director of the Algebra and Geography-Books-Fabrication and Hunter-General’, who has inspired many other artists and was institutionalized as a psychotic) have written his epic texts without being mentally ill? The writings of the mentally ill are fascinating precisely because of the fact that they were produced by the mentally ill: we as ‘normal’ people occasionally glimpse that world, while they are living in it.

        Thirdly, Kurt Vonnegut was mentioned earlier in this thread. In reviewing the book ‘Realms of the Unreal’ I mentioned earlier, he put his finger on a possible link that has been touched on briefly in this discussion: ‘If it turns out that gifted people culled for mental illness have given the world more works of art worth saving than those culled for other reasons, that would make sense, since nobody can feel as steadily and alarmingly excluded from the general population… Having nothing left to lose frees people to think their own thoughts, since there is no longer anything to be gained by echoing the thoughts of those around them…’ Thus institutionalization may cause higher creativity even if mental illness doesn’t, and it may be important to separate the two factors.

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