Today.Az » Voice of Diaspora » Does mental illness enhance creativity?
02 June 2016 [13:39] - Today.Az
By Claudia Hammond
Everyone can cite famous
people from Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf to Tony Hancock and Robin
Williams, who were exceptionally creative and experienced mental health
problems. There are so many examples that it seems obvious that there must be a
link between mental illness and creativity.
research would support this common wisdom? Not exactly.
fact there is remarkably little good data on the topic. In a review of 29
studies conducted before 1998, 15 found no link, nine did find a link and five
found it was unclear. So hardly a straightforward connection. And some of these
were simply case studies rather than rigorous attempts to establish whether
there really is a causal link.
of the difficulties is that it isn’t very easy to define or measure creativity,
so researchers often use proxies for it. For example, a study from 2011
simply classifies people by occupation assuming
that everyone who is an artist, a photographer, a designer or a scientist must
be creative, regardless of their exact job. Using the Swedish government census
the researchers did find that people with bipolar disorder were 1.35 times more
likely to be in one of these creative jobs. But there was no difference
when it came to anxiety, depression or schizophrenia. Because such a small
range of jobs was included, this data can’t tell us whether people in creative
professions are more likely than everyone else to have bipolar disorder or
whether accountants are unusually unlikely to develop it.
studies most often quoted in favour of a link include apiece
of research by Nancy Andreasen published in 1987which compared 30
writers with an equal number of non-writers. The writers were more likely
to have bipolar disorder than the non-writers. It’s a small sample, with just
30 writers interviewed in 15 years and although it is cited widely, it has been
criticised (see this paper by Judith Schlesinger for a comprehensive review of
this and the other oft-cited studies on this topic) because the mental health
problems were diagnosed via interviews and it is not clear what criteria were
used. Also the interviewer was not blinded to whether or not people were
writers, which could skew the results. What’s more, the writers had chosen to
visit a writing retreat, known to be a place where people sought sanctuary, so
perhaps those writers were more likely to feel troubled in the first place.
if the results are taken at face value they tell us little about causality. Did
the supposed creative benefits of bipolar disorder make the writers more likely
to choose their profession or did the symptoms mean it was harder for them to
find a traditional job? It is hard to know.
are two other studies frequently cited in support of a link between mental
illness and creativity. The first was conducted by Kay Redfield Jamison,
best-known for her fascinating book An Unquiet Mind. Again the
research was based on interviews, this time with poets, novelists,
biographers and artists. A total of 47 people took part, but there was no
control group, so any comparisons can only be made with average rates in a
population. She found surprising levels of mental illness. For example, half
the poets had sought treatment at one time or another. This sounds like a high
number, but as critics have pointed out, it is based on just nine people.
there is Arnold Ludwig’s research which involved a far greater number of
people. He studied the biographies of more than a thousand famous
people looking for mentions of mental health problems and found
that different professions had different patterns of problems. The difficulty
here is that although the famous people were undoubtedly exceptional (Winston
Churchill and Amelia Earhart, for example) they were not necessarily creative
in the strictest sense of word. Although his lengthy study is often quoted as
evidence in favour of a link, Ludwig himself admits in the paper that it has neither
been established that mental illness is more common amongst the eminent or that
it is necessary in order to achieve eminence.
of prominent people seem to be quite popular among researchers, but they don’t
always bring the same results. Back in 1904 Havelock Ellis studied more than
1,000, and found no relationship between mental illness and genius.
And a 1949 study of 19,000 German artists and scientists living
across three centuries came to the same conclusion. (An important caveat: these
studies have the disadvantage of relying on biographers both knowing of and
choosing to mention their subject’s mental health problems.)
when the evidence is thin at best and according to some studies, lacking
altogether, why has this idea stuck? One reason is that it seems to make
intuitive sense that thinking in unusual ways or experiencing the energy and
determination that mania can bring, might aid creativity. Some argue that therelationship between mental illness and creativity is more
complex, that mental health problems allow people to think more
creatively than others, but this creativity drops back down to average levels
or lower during severe episodes of illness. Sometimes of course a mental
health problem can stop people from being able to do what they want to do at
all. Depression soon saps motivation.
many believe the link simply because it is salient when it happens. The
psychologist Arne Dietrich gives a nice explanation
based on the Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s ‘availability heuristic’.
This is our tendency to focus on whatever is in front of us. Tales of Van Gogh
cutting his ear off in a moment of madness (and decades of speculation about
what did or didn’t happen) make that story vivid in our minds. We don’t have
equivalent mental pictures of artists happily getting on with their lives. We
estimate how often something is likely to happen by how easily it comes to
mind, so if we are asked to consider whether genius and mental illness are
linked, we are struck by the examples we can think of immediately.
possible that there could be some potential downsides to believing in the
relationship. Some individuals find their illness does seem to enhance their
creativity, and are even deterred from taking medication, for example, for
fear that that creativity might be extinguished. But is there a risk that people credit
their creative success to the illness rather than to their own talents? And what
about all those who live with mental health problems, but don’t find they have
exceptional talent? Is there pressure on them to feel they surely must excel
and to feel bad if they don’t?
I wonder whether the idea persists because it is comforting. Comforting if we
have a mental health problem because it opens up the possibility of a positive
side to it (and I interviewed many people over the years who have described
positives to me) and comforting if we don’t because it makes us think that if
we were a creative genius there would be a price to pay. Perhaps the link
between mental illness and creativity endures simply because we want it to.