Is There a Link Between Creativity and Madness?

If you’re schizophrenic, depressed, alcoholic, or bipolar, are you likely to be more creative than the average normal person? Most people think the answer to this is an obvious “Yes.” We’ve all heard about famous writers who’ve been alcoholics or have committed suicide (Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway) and musicians (Kurt Cobain) and even comedians (Robin Williams).

This is why so many people are surprised to learn that there’s no scientific evidence of a link between creativity and mental illness. In fact, there’s substantial evidence that creative people are more happy and mentally balanced than average; for example, check out this new study that found that writers “have more optimistic perspectives and improved quality of life”.

In the latest issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, reporter Tom Bartlett has written an excellent story that starts with his visit to the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival, where Professor Nancy Andreasen gave a standing-room-only lecture arguing that creative people are more likely to be mentally ill–specifically, to have mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder. But after speaking with several other prominent creativity researchers who were also invited to speak at the event (including me), he was surprised to discover that most of us don’t believe there’s a link.

Of course, Professor Andreasen strongly defended her research when interviewed by Bartlett after her talk. So when Bartlett concludes his article, he throws up his hands and says he can’t figure out what the real truth is:

The discussion too often gets derailed by wildly varying definitions of creativity and mental illness, terms that are so hopelessly broad that simply asking if there is a link between the two is unlikely to ever lead to a satisfying answer. The research that appears most promising takes a narrow look at particular fields and distinguishes between everyday creativity and bleeding-edge genius. It remains a bewildering puzzle, one hampered by our still-evolving knowledge of neurological differences, the challenge of categorizing creativity, and the cultural biases that can’t help but influence our conclusions. It’s enough to drive anyone crazy.

It’s not Bartlett’s fault; after all, there are one or two professors who stand out against the broader scientific consensus, most notably Andreasen, so what is a journalist supposed to do? Journalists generally like to represent every side of a controversial issue, but in this case I think Bartlett worked too hard to seem to treat both sides equally. When he interviewed me, I told him about the four most definitive scientific studies of mental illness and creativity, all of which found that among creative people, there isn’t a higher incidence of any mental disorder (I summarize all four in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity). I told him about the many studies showing that exceptional creators are more likely to be mentally healthy. I told him that most of my creativity research colleagues are certain there isn’t a link:

  • Robert Weisberg (2006) says this is a myth
  • James Kaufman (2009), the author of Creativity 101, says that studies claiming there’s a link are flawed and that the link has never been proven
  • In his influential textbook, Mark Runco (2007) says “there are indications that creativity has benefits for health” and that the only reason people are still talking about this is “because it is newsworthy”

One seeming exception is Dean Keith Simonton, who’s quoted by Bartlett as saying there might be a correlation between very highly exceptional creativity and mild psychopathology (although not full-blown mental illness). But even Simonton doesn’t think there’s a link between regular, everyday creativity and mental illness. And more importantly, he doesn’t argue that the link is a causal link–the idea that being exceptionally creative makes you more likely to become mentally ill, or the idea that having a mental illness makes it more likely that you will be exceptionally creative.

The first thing you learn in an undergraduate psychology course is that correlation is not causation. Even if there were a correlation between being creative and having mild symptoms of mental illness–and this rather mild claim is the only one that gets any traction with any more than one or two of creativity researchers–that link would not necessarily be causal. There are lots of ways that it could be almost accidental:

  • Artistic professions don’t police their borders the same way other professions do. If you’re bipolar, it may be hard to get through law school or medical school, but no one can stop you from taking up a pen and paper and writing short stories.
  • Our society has lots of stereotypes about how creative people are “supposed” to behave, and these include quirky behaviors and eccentricity. If a painter is a bit unconventional, no one gets upset. But if your accountant starts to act a bit quirky, you’ll go in search of another accountant. In other words, if we believe there’s a link between artistic creativity and eccentricity, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Finally, most artists and writers are not that successful, at least not right away. Their paintings don’t sell for a lot; their short stories and novels take years before they become famous (if ever). Engaging in work that you really care about, and experiencing rejection for days, months, and years, could stress out the most mentally stable individual.

All three of these explanations are perfectly good accounts of why there might be a correlation between artistic creativity and mild levels of mental unusual-ness. So it’s actually kind of surprising that all four of the major studies did not find any statistical evidence of a correlation between creativity and mental illness. (It’s probably because engaging in creative activities actually benefits your mental health.) And none of these explanations require us to posit a causal link. But of course it’s the causal link that gets people so interested–the belief that if you’re mentally ill, you can tap into some inner reserve of creative potential that is closed off to us normal people. For THAT claim, there is no evidence whatsoever.

Seeing Green (or, Maybe Blue) Makes You More Creative

I’ve just read a scientific article that provides evidence that green makes you more creative. The researchers conducted four different experimental studies, and in each study, people performed simple creativity tasks that could be easily scored (such as “think of unusual uses for a tin can”). Before the creativity task started, half of the subjects were “primed” with a two-second glimpse of green, and the other half saw instead white, gray, red, or blue, depending on the study.

The people who saw green were quite a bit more creative, in all four studies. In one of the four experiments, the people who saw green scored an average of over 2.0 on the creativity scale, and the people who saw white scored about 1.75. It might seem small, but for only two seconds of color that’s a pretty big effect!

Cover design with marblesI personally like this result–first, because green has been my favorite color since childhood; and second, because green is the color of the artwork in my 2013 creativity advice book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity…not only the marbles on the cover (at right) but also the interior artwork.

But wait a minute…didn’t Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine report on a study showing that blue made people more creative? I went back and checked, and sure enough, here’s the 2009 study from the University of British Columbia: 600 subjects were given various cognitive tasks against different colored backgrounds, and blue backgrounds made people more creative. Hey, I like blue too (light blue is the color of my university, the University of North Carolina) so green…blue…I’m happy either way. But what’s going on here?

In the 2012 paper arguing for green, one of the studies compared green with both blue and gray. They found (again) that green resulted in the highest creativity. Blue made people even less creative than seeing gray! That sounds pretty bad for fans of blue.

So how would the 2009 authors respond? Their study left out green entirely, comparing only blue, red, and white. That would seem really odd to the authors of the 2012 paper, who make their love of green obvious from the start; they argue that green is the color of growth and fertility in a wide range of cultures around the world, concluding that “This green-growth link is undoubtedly rooted in societal learning that may itself be grounded in an evolutionarily engrained predisposition.”

Honestly, I don’t know what’s going on. Frankly, I find it implausible that you could increase creativity just by painting your walls blue, or green, or whatever. Dr. Christopher Chabris, in his brutally critical review of Lehrer’s book Imagine, notes that “research on such color priming effects is hardly settled science.” That sounds right to me.

But hey, at least we know to stay away from red, white, and gray.

 

How to Write a Book

Here’s some great advice from the new book Beyond the First Draft: The Art of Fiction by John Casey:

  • I can’t teach someone how to write…but if someone is talented to begin with, I can save her a lot of time.
  • I can sometimes teach someone to rewrite.
  • You don’t have to only write about what you know. (Haven’t you read novels that contain murder scenes?)
  • “Show, don’t tell” is great advice–the same advice you’ll get in an improv theater class–but many great novelists do a lot of “telling” and it can be done very well.
  • You should probably avoid explicit sex scenes.
  • Take breaks during your writing, so that your subconscious mind has time to incubate new ideas for rewrites and revisions.

All of this advice works just as well for non-fiction writing. (Especially the advice to avoid sex scenes!) What really resonates with me is the emphasis on rewriting that’s signaled in the book’s title. Good writing comes from reading, editing, and revising–a zig-zagging path from the initial idea, through an emergent process where the characters and the story surprise you with something you didn’t realize was in there. My research shows that this zigzag is the source of all creativity. Allan Massie’s review of this book in the Wall Street Journal points out that close and careful reading is perhaps the most essential part of the creative writing process. That’s why all good writers are also very good readers…and all good creators are good critics, reviewers, and editors. In my book Zigzag, this ability is the seventh step in an 8-step process that I call “Choose: How to pick the best ideas and then make them even better.”

John Casey won the National Book Award in 1989 for his novel Spartina and he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Virginia.

How “Frozen” Was Created: New ABC Special Shows How Creativity Happens

anna_elsaFrozen is the most popular, highest grossing animated film of all time. How did the writers and producers create such a big success? Who had the brilliant idea to make a film about female empowerment, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale The Snow Queen?

As it turns out, no one person had this idea. Frozen did not result from a big moment of insight by a genius creator. In fact, the original script was completely different from the movie that we all know and love. The final movie’s themes of feminine strengths and bonds emerged, over time, from a wandering, collaborative, zigzag process.

Kristin Bell–the actress who voiced heroine Princess Anna–has often told how the original script was really different, and how the entire script was thrown out 12 months into production. Princess Anna was originally written as a prissy, girly character. Elsa was originally a villain. Fortunately, the directors–Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee–welcomed a creative process that was open, collaborative, and non-linear. As Lee said,

It’s a lot of back and forth with the characters. They develop a lot over time. The characters are sometimes recognizable from the beginning to where they are now, and sometimes they’re not.

Many of these details about Frozen have been known for a while. But today on ABC, fans will learn many more details. For example, the lyrics to “Let It Go,” the anthem of female empowerment that gave purpose and direction to Elsa, surprised the directors and led to another rewrite of the script. Today’s ABC special also reveals other zig-zagging twists and turns, for example that the song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” almost didn’t make it into the movie at all. (It was so popular at an early test screening that it was re-inserted.)

It turns out that this story is completely typical: Creativity never goes straight from idea to finished product. That’s why I called my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. In Zig Zag, I tell the story of how Pixar created the very first ever computer animated feature film, Toy Story. The first script treatment was almost completely different from the final movie that we all know and love, and there’s a long list of surprising zigs and zags in the creative process; here are some of my favorites from how Toy Story was created:

  • toy storyPixar wanted G. I. Joe as one of the toys in the movie, but Hasbro refused to license the rights. Instead, they offered to license the rights to Mr. Potato Head.
  • The writers wanted Woody and Buzz to be rescued from Sid’s house by Barbie, in a commando style raid. But Mattel refused to license the rights to Barbie.
  • Pixar wanted Billy Crystal to play the voice of Buzz Lightyear, but he turned down the part. The next choice was Tim Allen. The directors had wanted Buzz to be a self important, almost arrogant character, but at the first script reading, Allen’s voice made Buzz sound like a friendly, ordinary guy. The directors decided they liked that version of Buzz better, so they went back and rewrote the script completely.

These stories about Toy Story and Frozen offer several lessons about creativity:

  1. The first idea won’t be great, but you need that idea to get the journey started.
  2. You can never know exactly where you are in the process, or how close you are to the final goal. But you can trust in the process to get you there.
  3. Each zig leads to the next zag, and these changes in direction drive the creative process forward.

So how can you get the process started, and keep it moving through your own creative journey? In Zig Zag, I show you the eight steps you can take to move creativity forward.