The Problem with Linking Creativity and Mental Illness

Annabella Hochschild
Dec 4, 2018 7:27PM

Plato and Aristotle thought about it. And like many of the matters they considered, which we still ponder now, it’s the sort of question your pompous college classmate would’ve called “eternal.”

It’s a question that’s still applicable and widely debated: Is there a link between mental illness and creativity? In other words, does suffering through some disconnection from reality confer upon the sufferer greater powers of creativity? From a psychiatric viewpoint, the answer is no, definitely not.

Research studies on the subject have been sparse, but the vast majority have been decisive—no link is readily apparent. However, not all studies have refuted any link, and their data is, by nature, subjective.

Regardless, the idea that through the mind’s ravages, inspiration may come, still adds to the artist’s mystique. We do not lack for examples of the tortured artist: one-eared Vincent van Gogh; Albrecht Dürer’s melancholia; Mark Rothko’s death in his studio. But to focus on the mythologized biographies of famous artists is shortsighted. When considering creativity and madness, we often find ourselves leaning on such anecdotes as compelling evidence; yet, given that they’re often refuted by psychiatric research, the question of whether or not there is a link remains a difficult one to answer definitively.

Sigmund Freud, who revolutionized the field of psychiatry at the turn of the 20th century, and brought the idea of our actions being driven by unconscious urges into public discourse, considered this question. In his essay on Leonardo da Vinci, Freud binds together Leonardo’s work in the arts and sciences as expressive of, and driven by, childhood experiences and unconscious desires. He introduces the psychological dimension of Leonardo’s life, stating: “We no longer believe that health and disease, normal and nervous, are sharply distinguished from each other.” Which is to say: We all exist on a sanity-continuum.

In psychiatry, the line between healthy and pathological is based on everyday functioning. We have been sad and anxious at times. We have all had moments where we thought someone called out our name on the street or in a busy train station, but upon seeing no one we know, can disregard this thought. But mental illness can rob a person of this tolerance for ambiguity, leading to rigidity of thought—the opposite of creativity.

Some researchers who have queried this question posit that the intensely creative person is more likely to suffer from psychiatric illness. However, others have shown that although certain creative traits, such as the ability to make connections between distinct ideas, may be seen more commonly in the psychiatrically unwell, these measures of disorganized thought are not analogous to creativity. Whether we look at the question one way or the other—chicken before egg or egg before chicken—we still find ourselves in an imaginary henhouse.

Cognitive neuroscientist Arne Dietrich points out that even the sparse data we have from scientific literature in support of a link between creativity and mental illness, based on anecdotes and case studies, is not of the standard that modern psychiatric research is based upon. We are long past the days of basing any medical understanding on such case reports. (For instance, if your friend tells you their flu was cured entirely by turmeric, you don’t immediately go running to the spice aisle.) So when looking at this question, the research is not only unconvincing, it’s also predicated on outdated scientific methods.

But always, we find ourselves thinking back to the stories we know well, considering the lives of Gustav Mahler and Lord Byron, as well as countless others. Not only does this bolster our misconceived notions, but further, we are at the risk of romanticizing mental illness—missing the fact that lives filled with the emotional torpor and loneliness that comes with serious psychiatric illness are difficult.

When examining why this question has mystified centuries of human minds, the base rate fallacy in behavioral economics offers an answer: We like the idea of madness predisposing greater creativity, or vice-versa, because we value “knowledge” that we already know over new information, and use our outmoded (or downright incorrect) “knowledge” as scaffolding for our nascent thoughts to develop around. We think that because Beethoven was a depressive genius, the suicidal man in room 303 of a nearby psychiatric unit may well also be a genius. We cannot rule out that he isn’t a genius, but we also have no basis upon which to presume him any smarter than anyone else.

Even if we consider the question of a correlation between mental illness and creativity due to anecdotes that support it, we can readily refute it via the same method. As much as John Keats represents the tortured poet, coughing to death in his Roman bedroom, Wallace Stevens represents the opposite, writing Pulitzer Prize–winning poetry while working assiduously as an insurance executive.

The idea that madness brings creativity to bear is an enticing one, as it transforms the pain of mental illness from a hollow one—to one from which something beautiful may grow. Perhaps the reason this question has been considered for so long is that we find faith in it, as our private apology and absolution to those who live lives full of torment.

Annabella Hochschild