Tuesday, April 5

Creativity and mental illness - what's the link?

In Psychology, the confirmation bias is where people favour and are more likely to remember information which links in to their prior assumptions.  So while it's easy to think of examples of creative people who have had mental health problems - Van Gogh, Byron, Proust, Poe - it's hard to be sure that these examples aren't better known just because they fit the stereotype.

The Ravine, 1889, Van Gogh
Looking at Wikipedia's list of people with depression, there certainly seems to be a preponderance of artists, musicians, writers and actors.  However, this may reflect the kind of people who would tend to have entries in the first place.

The picture is further complicated by the fact that besides what are thought of as creative industries, creativity as a general trait can be of great benefit to politicians, business leaders and so on.  To make a comparison, Post (1994) selected around 50 individuals (all men!) from several fields - poets, novelists, politics, science etc - who had made a clearly world-class contribution to their field.  He found that while nearly all were ambitious, hard-working and sociable, only the artists and writers showed signs of abnormal personalities.  Three-quarters of artists but also half of the other group showed signs of mood disorders, though not to an extreme extent, but enough to make them clearly different from the general population.

An even stronger finding, supported by Nettle (2005), was that artists are more likely to suffer from schizotypy - a condition related to schizophrenia, but with much milder symptoms.  This relates to an ongoing debate over whether mental illnesses occur in an all-or-nothing way (the way we either have a physical ailment, like a broken leg, or we don't) or if they are better viewed as lying along a continuum, from a little to a lot.  (Curiously, in the context of my previous post, schizotypy has also been linked to dominance of the brain's right hemisphere).

Mental illness can be totally debilitating, so how is it possible that people with unusual psychological symptoms go on to become some of our most productive artists, writers and political leaders?  Nettle (2005) found that while "artistic creatives and psychiatric patients share a tendency to unusual ideas and experiences," they have a better ability than psychiatric patients to control and integrate these experiences.

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Fay Weldon says that ‘there have to be two personalities in every writer’: the one who produces the first drafts, has to be ‘creative, impetuous, wilful, emotional, sloppy,’ while the one who works on and edits drafts has to be ‘argumentative, self-righteous, cautious, rational, effective’ (quoted in Singleton and Luckhurst, 2000: 305). This is a long way from having a 'split personality' or being bipolar in the clinical sense, but hints that being totally stable is not an advantage.  This might not be true of every job - Nettle (2005) found that in comparison to artists, mathematicians had low levels of schizotypy.

It may be that there are many tasks in life where there would be a a benefit to going through two separate phases, one energetic and idea-focused, and another cautious and focusing on review and consolidation, but research suggests that the pattern has a natural fit with creative occupations.  Educational expert Sir Ken Robinson links every aspect of human cultural development back to creativity.  Could the very nature of creativity be an adaption of the species which has allowed us to progress, but at the risk of mental illness?

Nettle, D. (2005). Schizotypy and mental health amongst poets, visual artists, and mathematicians. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 876–890.
Post, F. (1994).  Creativity and psychopathology: A study of 291 world-famous men.  The British Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 22-34.
Singleton, J. and Luckhurst, M. (2000).  The Creative Writing Handbook.  Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave.