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.

The Most Entertaining Obituary Ever…and, the Aspen Ideas Festival 2014

I’m here in beautiful Aspen, Colorado, at the tenth annual Aspen Ideas Festival. Yesterday afternoon, I gave a tutorial session about how to be more creative, drawing on my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. This morning, I woke up very early, and was reading the New York Times during morning coffee. With lots of spare time, I did something I rarely do: I read the obituaries, and I learned about a fascinating creative life, with lessons about creativity for all of us.

The musician and composer Michael Brown died on June 11th at his home in Manhattan. He was 93. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he’s one of those behind-the-scenes creators who rarely comes up when we’re talking about exceptional creativity. Brown was a true creative genius. He wrote, produced, and directed a musical that has been performed and viewed 17,000 times, more times than any other. After Brown’s musical, the second most watched musical is “Phantom of the Opera,” with 11,000 performances since opening in 1988.

The musical was called “Wonderful World of Chemistry,” performed at the DuPont pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair–at least 40 times a day, by at least 8 different companies, for months on end. “Wonderful World of Chemistry” is what’s known as an “industrial musical.” Many of these musicals were paid for by large corporations in the middle of the 20th century for advertising and promotional purposes.

Mr. Brown was “one of the genre’s most sought-after creators,” according to today’s New York Times obituary. Brown created musicals for the J.C. Penney company, Singer sewing machines, and DuPont. He made big money creating a musical fashion show for Esquire magazine in the fall of 1956. In the 1950s, industrial musicals were a big deal. Companies paid as much as $3 million to produce Broadway-style extravaganzas for their employees. (Hollywood musicals, by contrast, typically were produced for $500,000.) The musicals were usually performed only once or twice at sales conferences and managerial meetings, to build employee loyalty and motivate the troops. “Wonderful World of Chemistry” was the rare exception that was performed for the public.

A fascinating creative life, right? But wait, there’s more. In addition to his many big-budget musicals, Michael Brown played an important role in the creation of Harper Lee’s famous novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Michael and Joy Brown had met Harper Lee through her friend Truman Capote; Brown came to know Capote when he wrote the lyrics to a song in the 1954 Broadway musical “House of Flowers” with a book by Mr. Capote and music by Harold Arlen. Ms. Lee was a basically a starving artist; she had no time to write because she was barely scraping by, working as an airline reservations clerk. But both Capote and Brown saw potential. In 1956, the Browns were flush with cash thanks to the windfall from creating the Esquire fashion show musical. As a Christmas present that year, the Browns gave Harper Lee a special gift: they told her “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” That year off allowed her to write “To Kill a Mockingbird”. She told this story long ago, in a 1961 interview in McCall’s magazine, but she never identified the Browns by name.

Everyone kept the secret for almost 50 years. The story didn’t become public until the 2006 publication of “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,” a biography by Charles J. Shields.

I’m here at the Aspen Ideas Festival, with several of my creativity research colleagues, giving talks about “The Age of Creativity.” So naturally I’m making connections between Michael Brown’s life and the many lessons about creativity that we’ve been discussing over the last few days.

  • We have many stereotypes about creative people, about famous creators like Einstein or Hemingway. But imagine: how many other creative geniuses are there, like Mr. Brown, that never make it into the popular consciousness as creative figures?
  • We associate creativity with pure art, inspiration coming from an inner inspiration or intuition. But so much creativity is in service of a customer, a client, an audience. Mr. Brown created for large companies. Does that make him less creative, somehow, than an artist who works without constraint, guided only by an inner demon or genius?
  • We think of Harper Lee as “the creator” of the famous novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But before this work could be created, supporters and friends like Truman Capote and Michael Brown provided essential support. It turns out that this is always the case with great creativity–as documented in the brilliant 1982 book by sociologist Howard Becker, Art Worlds.

In my session here at Aspen, I described one of the creativity techniques from my book Zig Zag: I call it “strange magazines.” The next time you’re in a bookstore–for example, in the airport–make a point of buying a magazine that is completely unrelated to anything you know anything about. It could be a jewelry making magazine, or a motorcycle magazine, or a guns or tattoo artist magazine. Then, thumb through and try to figure out the key concepts and issues facing readers. Make sure to look closely at the advertisements. After you’ve gotten through the magazine, put it aside, and start thinking about a creative challenge you currently face. Then, by analogy, work to find links between your problem, and the issues and concepts you’ve identified in your magazine.

If I ever write a second edition of Zig Zag, I’m going to add another creativity technique: Make a point of reading New York Times obituaries, especially of people who work in fields very different from your own. The more diverse ideas and information you put into your brain, the more creative you’ll become.