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.