Is There a Link between Creativity and Mental Illness?

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

 

Chester Bennington.
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: 

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Study helps explain why motivation to learn declines with age

Research suggests that aging affects a brain circuit critical for learning and decision-making.

Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

As people age, they often lose their motivation to learn new things or engage in everyday activities. In a study of mice, MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain circuit that is critical for maintaining this kind of motivation.

Keep reading Show less

New brain scan analysis tool can detect early signs of dementia

Researchers develop the first objective tool for assessing the onset of cognitive decline through the measurement of white spots in the brain.

Credit: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • MRI brain scans may show white spots that scientists believe are linked to cognitive decline.
  • Experts have had no objective means of counting and measuring these lesions.
  • A new tool counts white spots and also cleverly measures their volumes.
Keep reading Show less
Strange Maps

End gerrymandering? Here’s a radical solution

Why not just divide the United States in slices of equal population?

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast