Is There a Link between Creativity and Mental Illness?

“No great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness.” -Aristotle

 

Chester Bennington, late lead singer of Linkin Park. Getty Images.

The world was recently saddened with the deaths of rocker Chris Cornell and Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington. Each committed suicide after wrestling for years with major depression. Comedians, musicians, writers (gulp!), and other creative types are known to struggle with mental illness. This is by no means a new observation. Aristotle once said, “No great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness.”


Michelangelo, Beethoven, van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, and so many others who through their work, altered the course of human existence, were also known to wrestle with powerful inner demons. That doesn’t prove a link, however. We could as a society merely romanticize the artist riddled with madness and eccentricity. So has science found a link? And if so, what can it tell us about this relationship?

There have been two approaches to investigating this. The first is conducting interviews with prominent creative people or analyzing their work. The Lange-Eichbaum study of 1931 was the first to really delve into the question. Over 800 well-known geniuses at the time were interviewed. Only a small minority were found to be free of any mental health issues. Most recent studies have strengthened a belief in this correlation.

Chris Cornell. Getty Images.

Besides this interview approach or analyzing someone’s work for signs of mental illness, as has been done with Virginia Woolf’s writing, there’s another approach. This is to look at creativity among those with mental illness. Some studies have shown that those who are highly creative also run a higher risk of depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

Bipolar has been particularly associated with creativity. One study which screened 700,000 Swedish teens for intelligence, found that those who were exceptionally creative, were also four times more likely to have bipolar. This condition is typified by the patient’s mood alternating between phases of mania or extreme happiness, and crippling depression. Researchers here also found a strong correlation between writers and schizophrenia. Yikes.

A 2013 study, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, found that people who made their living through either a scientific or creative occupation, were more likely to have bipolar, or a relative with the condition. Researchers here concluded that, “being an author was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.” We writers just can’t catch a break.

Writer's may be particularly prone to mental illness. David Foster Wallace. Getty Images.

Clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison of Johns Hopkins University told Live Science that those who have bipolar and are coming out of a depressive phase, often see a boost in creativity. When this occurs, the frontal lobe of the brain shows a lot of activity, similar to what takes place when someone is concentrating in creative pursuit. That's according to neurobiologist James Fallon of UC-Irvine.

Another reason may be the sheer volume of ideas that flood the mind of someone with bipolar in a manic state. A larger number of ideas increases the chance of having a really unique one. Associate Dean and mental health law professor Elyn Saks of USC, said that those with a psychiatric disorder have less of a mental filter. They can live comfortably with cognitive dissonance or holding two competing ideas in the mind simultaneously. This allows for them to find tenuous associations others might miss.

Some researchers have wondered if there’s a genetic connection. A 2015 study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, suggests that there is. This project included the data of some 86,000 Icelanders and 35,000 Swedes and Danes. A team of international researchers conducted the study, led by Kari Stefansson, founder and CEO of deCODE, an Icelandic genetics company.

The suicide of Robin Williams shocked many worldwide, who never knew he wrestled with depression. Getty Images.

Stafansson and colleagues found that creative professionals and those who were members of arts societies, had higher polygenic risk scores for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Polygenes are those which are too small to enact influence on their own, but in concert with others can cause certain variations to occur.

Critics point out that the link in Icelandic study is a weak one. They say that although we’re familiar with famous cases of creatives who were touched by psychological turmoil, this isn’t necessarily the norm. Psychology professor Albert Rothenberg of Harvard University, is one such detractor. In his 2014 book, Flight from Wonder: An Investigation of Scientific Creativity, he interviewed 45 Nobel laureates. Rothenberg found no association between creativity and psychiatric disorders. None of the laureates had any in any notable way.  

In an interview with The Guardian Rothenberg said,

The problem is that the criteria for being creative is never anything very creative. Belonging to an artistic society, or working in art or literature, does not prove a person is creative. But the fact is that many people who have mental illness do try to work in jobs that have to do with art and literature, not because they are good at it, but because they’re attracted to it. And that can skew the data. Nearly all mental hospitals use art therapy, and so when patients come out, many are attracted to artistic positions and artistic pursuits.

Though several studies point to a connection, it isn’t definitive. More research will be needed, especially to prove whether or not there are genetic underpinnings. Say that there is a connection and we isolate the genes or polygenes responsible, would curing a potential creative genius of say bipolar disorder or allowing them to manage it well, kill off their creativity?

If it did, would we be robbing society of potentially groundbreaking advancements or colossal works of art? And if a creative genius who midwifed such works for the benefit of humanity was not cured, on purpose, and in the aftermath committed suicide, would the doctors who reserved treatment be complicit? Would society? These are thorny moral questions we might have to weigh in on, someday soon.

Until then, if you want to learn more on this topic, click here: 

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

The history of using the Insurrection Act against Americans

Numerous U.S. Presidents invoked the Insurrection Act to to quell race and labor riots.

The army during riots in Washington, DC, after the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., April 1968.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • U.S. Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act on numerous occasions.
  • The controversial law gives the President some power to bring in troops to police the American people.
  • The Act has been used mainly to restore order following race and labor riots.
Keep reading Show less

Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

Scroll down to load more…