The research, published in The British Journal of Psychiatry, identifies a set of traits shared by creative types (comedians most sharply) and the insane. It doesn’t tell us much about clinical psychosis, but it helps explain the fine line between madness and comedy. The traits are:
“The creative elements needed to produce humor are strikingly similar to those characterizing the cognitive style of people with psychosis – both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder,” said Gordon Claridge, one of three co-authors of the study.
Claridge, of the University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology, stressed that no correlation was found between comic genius and mental illness, only an association between the thinking styles.
While schizophrenia can be very disabling, it gives rise to some very unusual thinking. Manic notions may help people make spectacularly original connections as well.
“Although schizophrenic psychosis itself can be detrimental to humor, in its lesser form it can increase people’s ability to associate odd or unusual things or to think ‘outside the box’,” Claridge explains.
“Equally, ‘manic thinking,’ which is common in people with bipolar disorder, may help people combine ideas to form original and humorous connection.”
If mental illness is a price we pay for creativity, the authors underscore that creative genius is found only among multitudes otherwise disabled by severe mental illness.
Among them are the likes of such towering figures as Charles Buddy Bolen. The New Orleans clarinetist with a diagnosis of schizophrenia is credited with inventing the jazz form. No small contribution there.
Yet the Silvia Plath syndrome, as it’s come to be known, captures the public imagination more than it probably should, no doubt because it helps explain two great mysteries in one: madness and creativity.
From what I’ve seen, the creative plank tends to teeter somewhere between manic depression and schizoaffective disorder.
Trust me on this. Coming from a family that’s both very funny and very psychotic, I’ve witnessed the full spectrum, there and back again.
It must come from our father, who was both genuinely hilarious and slightly manic, a mix that left us all with ticklish funny bones.
Good and bad, Dad left his mark on me and the sisters. On the down side, we are so used to laughing it up that we almost die of boredom around stodgy people.
If that sounds horrible, it’s no great hardship. You meet so many stiffs in life, you learn to swerve quickly.
Kidding, of course. Just trying out my comedy routine on you. Because madness doesn’t just run in our family, it gallops!
Maybe I should try my hand at comedy instead of blogging in vain about mental illness. Or maybe not.
What the bard said remains very true: laugh and world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone.
Still, and even on the best of days, the divine comedy can feel more like colossal blunder.
Not to worry because we’re never alone. Since one out of every five people is suffering from a mental illness if you’re talking to four friends and they’re all fine, then it’s you.
Maybe I’ve already crossed the line. When it comes to family madness, humor requires a peculiar mental arithmetic that’s laudable when done right, awful when it lands badly.
Laughter, they say, may be the best medicine. Unless it’s not funny. Then, they say, you may need some medicine.
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Last reviewed: 19 Jan 2014