I’ve often contemplated the intricacies and mysteries of depression. At a young age I attended an Art School for years and wondered why our department (visual arts department students in particular) were often always in a state of turmoil. Growing up, this seemed to be a natural state of mind for me and was fortunate that I had Art as a mode of expression since childhood. I’ve looked back at drawings and paintings I did as a child before I could even write and was not at all surprised at the dark imagery I used to depict in my art work. It is a part of me and who I am. Turmoil and divine madness fuel (typically) my art. Whether it be discovering a concept for a new Performance piece, a graphic art piece, drawing or painting. Maybe I still do not understand it or ever will. I won’t explain it, nor do I intend to ever. I will just follow the journey and along the way will show you.
I came across a couple of days ago an article about creativity and mental illness by Laura Gosselink. She explains the link between creativity and mental illnesses and uses various examples of quotes from Artists and Authors throughout history. If anything, it is certainly an interesting read.
Creativity and Mental Illness
Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence–whether much that is glorious–whether all that is profound–does not spring from disease of thought–from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night – Edgar Allen Poe
When you are insane, you are busy being insane – all the time… When I was crazy, that’s all I was. – Sylvia Plath
Is creative genius somehow woven together with “madness”? According to the dictionary, “to create” is “to bring into being or form out of nothing.” Such a powerful, mysterious, and even impossible act must surely be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry! No wonder creativity has for so long been “explained” as the expression of an irrational, intuitive psychic “underground” teaming with forces (perhaps divine) that are unknown and unknowable (at least to the “sane,” conventional mind). The ancient Greeks believed creative inspiration was achieved through altered states of mind such as “divine madness.” Socrates said: “If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the inspired madman” (8). Creative inspiration – particularly artistic inspiration — has often been thought to require the sampling of dark “depths” of irrationality while maintaining at least some connection to everyday reality. This dive into underground forces “reminds one of a skin-diver with a breathing tube” wrote Arthur Koestler in his influential book, The act of creation (8). According to Koestler, “the creative act always involves a regression to earlier, more primitive levels on the mental hierarchy, while other processes continue simultaneously on the rational surface.” Using similar themes, the great scientific figure, Kekule described a visionary moment leading to his groundbreaking discovery that the benzene molecule is a ring. His creative break with the prevailing assumption that all molecules were based on two-ended strings of atoms came in a blazing flash of insight:
“I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes…. [My mental eye] could distinguish larger structures, of manifold conformation; long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snakelike motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke.” (2).
Like Kekule, people recognized for their creative genius often depict moments of inspiration as an electrifying convergence of rational and irrational thought. If there is an edge to be found between the rational and the irrational; between the known and the unknown; between the conventional and the innovative, and if this edge is where creativity takes place, it makes sense that a creative mind runs the risk of going “too far.” As Koestler has put it, “skin-divers are prone to fall victim to “the rapture of the deep” and tear their breathing tubes off”(8). Artists Ernest Hemmingway, Virginia Woolf, Charles Parker, and John Berryman would appear to have torn away their breathing tubes when they entered psychiatric hospitals and eventually committed suicide (1). Further reinforcing the association of creativity with illogical, disruptive psychic forces are great numbers of influential 18th and 19th century poets, including William Blake, Lord Byron and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote about their emotional extremes of experience. For example, George Edward Woodberry wrote of poets: ” Emotion is the condition of their existence; passion is the element of their being.” (1). And the turbulent lives of high profile musicians and artists such as Charles Mingus, Georgia O’Keefe, Jackson Pollack, and Sylvia Plath also seem to testify to a link between creativity and psychic instability. But can a connection between mental disorder and enhanced creativity be identified by the methods of science? Is there really a connection, and if so how does it work?
“When a superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce,” wrote psychologist William James as the twentieth century began, “we have the best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries. Such men do not remain mere critics and understanders with their intellect. Their ideas posses them, they inflict them, for better or worse, upon their companions of their age” (8). James and contemporary scientists such as psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin emphasized the positive aspects of certain psychological disorders, and speculated that other talents could combine with them to produce extraordinary creativity. But James also stressed the debilitating extremes of psychiatric illness(8). This moderate view, underscoring the need for balance in an effectively creative person, has since characterized much thinking on the subject of creativity and mental disturbance. As Sylvia Plath later said, “When you are insane, you are busy being insane – all the time… When I was crazy, that’s all I was”(5). Against this background, some current research into the interaction between creativity and psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder and depression suggests that their may indeed be a vital connection between “genius” and “insanity” in some instances.
Kay Redfield Jamison is a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who has talked openly and honestly about her own manic depressive emotional instability. Her review of current research leads her to conclude that a large number of established artists – “far more than could be expected by chance” – can be diagnosed with bipolar disorder or major depression (4). Jamison believes that several corroborating diagnostic and psychological analyses of living artistic populations provide meaningful evidence that highly creative people experience major mood disorders more often than do other groups in the general population. So for her there is a clear link between psychic instability and creativity. But Jamison warns against simplistic notions of the “mad genius.” She points out that most emotionally unstable people are not extraordinarily creative, and most extraordinarily creative people are not emotionally unstable. She then asks the question: how might mania or depression contribute to creative accomplishment?
The characteristics of milder forms of mania are very similar to creative thought, Jamison asserts. Acutely tuned senses, restlessness, irritability, grandiosity, thought diversity, and the ability to associate divergent ideas and thoughts rapidly are all hallmarks of both the creative and mildly manic (or “hypomanic”) individual. Jamison describes two features central to both creative and hypomanic thought. First, thought is fluid, rapid, and flexible. In addition, there is heightened ability to merge ideas and thoughts that have no conventional connection. (4). Many psychologists, Jamison points out, have emphasized the importance of fluid, quick, and divergent thinking in producing new, original, and “creative” ideas. Rapidity of thought itself spurs creativity. “Because of the more rapid flow of ideas,” Psychologist Eugene Bleuler explains, “and especially because of the falling off of inhibitions, artistic activities are facilitated even though something worth while is produced only in very mild cases and when the patient is otherwise talented in this direction. The heightened senses naturally have the effect of furthering this.” (8). Observing an incredible outpouring of uncensored mental activity by his manic friend Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott said: “The wheels of a machine to play rapidly must not fit with the utmost exactness else the attrition diminish the Impetus.” (8). But the sheer volume or density of ideas spewing from a manic person’s mind increases the likelihood that at least some of those ideas will be creative ones. A person who goes to bat a million times is more likely to get a hit than someone who only steps to the plate a few hundred times.
Manic people also have demonstrably increased ability to form new and different associations between words. In laboratory tests, the number of “statistically common” responses to tested words fell by one-third and the number of “original” responses increased three-fold(8). This qualitative change in mental processing “may well facilitate the formation of unique ideas and associations,” Jamison asserts.
In contrast to the fiery energy with which mania infuses creativity, is the cold, ruminative, introspection of depression. It is widely accepted that insight gained through intense, extreme, even painful experiences can add depth and meaning to creative work. Poet Anne Sexton explained how she used pain in her work: “I, myself, alternate between hiding behind my own hands, protecting myself anyway possible, and this other, this seeing ouching other. I guess I mean that creative people must not avoid the pain that they get dealt…. Hurt must be examined like a plague.” (8).
The creative person who suffers from manic-depression also has what Jamison calls “a built-in editing process” for the excesses and sometime lunacies expressed during manic episodes. Mild depression can actually put into perspective what had seemed, in a manic-state, to be brilliant. One is better suited to truly discover what ideas may be brilliant or creative out of the hodge-podge of ideas spewed from the manic mind. In fact, research has shown that people in mildly depressed states are more “realistic” than people in “normal” states of mind(8). Observations and beliefs produced during mild depression are closer to “reality” than those produced in “normal” states of mind. This supports T.S. Eliots’ observation that “human kind cannot bear much reality” (8).
In the face of too much reality, creative work can be turned to as a solace and a means of working out of a depressive episode, Jamison says. George Bernard Shaw wrote that if you can’t get rid of the family skeleton, you might as well make it dance “(5). And T.S. Eliot, working through a bout of depression, wrote: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotions, but an escape from emotions, it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotion, know what it means to want to escape from those things” (8). By this reasoning, if you routinely keep an even emotional “keel,” there’s not much impetus to behave creatively.
Thus, although it is certainly not the case that all creative individuals suffer from manic depression, it seems that characteristics of mania and depression aid the development and expression of creative thought and action. Mania combines new and heretofore unconnected ideas at a rapid pace and has even been shown to elevate IQ scores(8). Mania also imbues the individual with relentless drive and confidence that can, very often, lead to creative output. Balancing mania, depression not only can serve as a “reality-check” to manic excesses of thought and action, but also can itself provide fuel for creativity.
What does this mean for treatment? “I want to keep those sufferings,” said artist Edvard Munch. When told he could end his cycle of psychiatric hospitalizations with available treatment, he replied that emotional torments “are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and it would destroy my art” (8). As Jamison points out, many creative people are reluctant to be transformed by psychiatric treatment into “normal, well-adjusted, dampened, and bloodless souls” no longer moved to create(8). And their fears may not be unfounded. Current psychotropic drug therapies can offer some relief from the painful, destructive features of mania and depression. But according to Jamison, there is a price to pay — these drugs can “dampen a person’s general intellect and limit his or her emotional and perceptual range” (8). As a result, many people with mood disorders stop taking these medications. The tragic consequences include emotional extremes that intensify over time and can lead to psychosis or death. These consequences should not be romanticized.
Jamison argued that the methods of science identify, in the case of bipolar and depressive disorders, some truth behind the persistent cultural notion of a vital link between genius and insanity. Clearly our existence as a human community would be diminished without the “genius” responsible for scientific breakthrough or for what we respond to as great musical, literary, and visual works of art. If this genius sometimes grows up in suffering, it seems that the pain of a few of us benefits all of us. If we appreciate the gifts these creative people have given us, they deserve our understanding and careful consideration. Treatment should seek to find a balance preserving crucial human emotions and experiences while alleviating destructive extremes.
1) Famous People with Bipolar Disorders , List drawn from Kay Jamison’s Touched With Fire; Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament
2) Precis of “THE CREATIVE MIND: MYTHS AND MECHANISMS”, What is creativity? – by Margaret A. Boden, School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences, University of Sussex, England
3) An Artful Madness : Talents Emerge, Dementia Takes Over, Very interesting research from Dr. Bruce Miller of theUniversity of Californis, San Francisco – Creative artistic and inventive activity is enhanced while at the same time speech and language centers of the brain are destroyed by “frontotemporal dementia” (FTD) disease. – ABCNEWS.com
4) Several studies now show that creativity and mood disorders are linked., Scientific American article by Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She wrote Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperamen” and co-authored the medical textManic-Depressive Illness. Jamison is a member of the National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research and clinical director of the Dana Consortium on the Genetic Basis of Manic-Depressive Illness.
5) Mental Disturbance and Creative Achievement , Biographical study of prominent 20th century figures by Arnold M. Ludwi g — finds high achievers in social, business, and science professions have higher rates of mental disturbance than population as a whole. Rate of artistic professionals nearly twice as high. The Harvard Mental Health Letter, March 1996
6) Artistic Inspiration and the Brain , Another response to Dr. Bruce Miller study – FTD & creativity
7) The Systems View of Life , includes discussion of how creativity is fundamentally built into all living systems -by Fritjof Capra, theoretical high-energy physicist and author. Capra studied with Werner Heisenberg at the University of Vienna. He does research at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and lectures at the University of California, Berkeley.
8) Amazon.com, To order the book: Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic temperment – by Kay Redfield Jamison