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.

Educating for Creative Minds

I just returned from San Francisco, where I gave a keynote at the “Learning & the Brain” conference. In my talk, “Creative Teaching for the 21st Century,” I described the learning outcomes students need to become creative, and I identified the central features of learning environments that foster creative learning. The very receptive audience included over 1,500 dedicated educators–teachers, school leaders, education entrepreneurs.

I really enjoyed spending time with my creativity research colleagues. I chatted with other creativity experts on the program, including:

  • Ronald Beghetto, professor at University of Oregon and co-editor of Nurturing Creativity in the Classroom
  • Shelley Carson, author of Your Creative Brain
  • Charles Fadel, author of 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times
  • James Kaufman, professor at Cal State San Bernardino, and author of Creativity 101
  • Tina Seelig, Executive Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program and author of inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity

There were several other colleagues in San Francisco that I wanted to meet, but I just couldn’t find them among the 1,500 people: Nancy Andreasen, Mark Beeman, John Seely Brown, Scott Barry Kaufman, John Kounios, Dean Keith Simonton, and many others. The conference organizers did a great job of bringing together the top people working on creativity and learning.

Thank you to all of the educators who came up to me after my talk, to tell me about their own efforts to redesign schools to foster greater creativity. You are pointing the way toward the future!

A Great Review of Explaining Creativity

Today I was thrilled to read an enthusiastic review* of my book Explaining Creativity, by Professor James Kaufman and Alexander McKay. Explaining Creativity is the second edition of a book I published in 2006, as a textbook overview of the field of creativity research. Since 2006, there’s been a lot of new research, so this new book is totally different; for example, it has seven new chapters and eight new appendices.

Excerpts from the review:

Required reading for anyone interested in the topic. In a just world, Sawyer’s thorough and nuanced volume would be the best seller, not Jonah Lehrer’s pedestrian Imagine.

Sawyer’s book is easily the most thorough creativity text on the market.

We highly recommend this book.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my book and for writing such a strong review!

*Kaufman, J. and McKay, A. (2012). Incisive and balanced: R. Keith Sawyer explains creativity. PsycCRITIQUES: APA Review of Books. August 22, 2012, Vol. 57, Release 33, Article 5