Singing the Blues: How Depression Has Created Some of the World’s Greatest Artists
The idea of the tortured creative is a common one, but the link between creativity and mental illness is little understood. Although we can easily point to famous artists throughout history who struggled with mental disorders, such as Vincent van Gogh and Sylvia Plath, uncovering the connections that mental health and creative genius share is a more complicated process.
Multiple scientific studies have lent credence to the generally-held belief that creative genius and a tortured mind often come in pairs. A Stanford University study examined instances of traits associated with bipolar disorder in students in creative fields of study, compared with those in non-creative disciplines. Researchers found that those in creative fields were more likely to exhibit certain traits characteristic of bipolar disorder than the other students.
Another study, this one from Austria’s University of Graz, showed similarities between the brain activity of test subjects who are highly creative and those who have been diagnosed with the psychiatric condition schizotypy. Both of those groups demonstrated similar brain function during creative cognition tests in a way that differed from brain activity of the general population. The findings indicated that the brains of both highly creative people and those with schizotypy filter out less external stimuli than those of the general population.
Scientist Nancy C. Andreasen has spent a significant portion of her career studying the relationship between creativity and psychology. At one point in her studies, about 80 percent of the writers she was studying had experienced a mood disorder during their lives, which was more than twice as many as in the control group.
Somewhat conversely to the findings of many related studies, a large-scale Swedish study found significantly less association between psychiatric disorders and professions in fields that are commonly considered creative, such as those in the arts and sciences. That study found that people working in creative fields were more likely than the general population to suffer from bipolar disorder, but not other mental health conditions. The exception to that rule was writers, whom the researchers found were more likely to experience a variety of mental disorders and to commit suicide at a significantly higher rate. Although the study was subject to some limitations that may have affected its findings, such as the parameters used to define a creative occupation, it does serve as a reminder that creativity does not automatically go hand-in-hand with mental troubles.
Another significant finding of the Swedish study was that creative types were more likely to have close family members with a psychiatric condition. These included autism, schizophrenia, anorexia nervosa and bipolar disorder.
Andreasen, too, has observed how both mental illness and creative greatness seem to have a tendency to run in families. For example, Kurt Vonnegut, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell are all remembered for their great accomplishments, but all three had close family members who suffered from mental illness or even dealt with it themselves.
Some scientists hypothesize that there is a U-shaped model at play here. To a certain point, traits associated with mental illness, such as a brain that filters less incoming information from the surrounding environment, can bolster one’s creativity. However, there may be a point at which the influence of the mental illness is too powerful, severely limiting a person’s creative output. The genetic component to psychiatric disorders and the increased rate of mental illness in the families of highly creative thinkers may indicate that many creative geniuses have inherited enough of their families psychiatric anomalies to fuel their creativity but not enough to keep them from achieving greatness.