“To assume, then, that such diseases usually promote artistic talent wrongly reinforces simplistic notions of the ‘mad genius.'” Kay Redfield Jamison

In an interview for the NPR radio program Fresh Air with Terry Gross, science writer Jonah Lehrer commented, “One of the surprising things that’s emerged from the study of moods…is that putting [people] in a bad mood — making them a little bit sad or melancholy — comes with some cognitive benefits.

“So sadness, although it is not fun and is not pleasant, it does sharpen the mind a little bit.

“And one of the long-standing mysteries in the field of creativity is this correlation — and this was first identified by Kay Redfield Jamison and others — is people suffering from various kinds of depression and creative output.”

He continued, “People who are successful creators — especially writers — are anywhere between 8 and 40 times more likely to suffer from bipolar depression than the general public. And no one’s known what to make of this.”

He pointed out that it is “tough to associate creativity with mental illness because obviously if you’re very ill, it gets in the way. … But one of the theories now is that the terrible swings of the mental illness – of bipolar depression – you get these manic highs, these euphorias, where the ideas just pour out of you. …

“That’s followed by this dismal low period when maybe you’re a better editor. Maybe it’s easier for you to focus and refine those epiphanies into a perfect form.”

He thinks the research may support the idea of a correlation “because the swings of mental illness echo the natural swings of the creative process.”

From transcript (and audio player of the interview): ‘Imagine’ That: Fostering Creativity In The Workplace.

His new book is Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Lehrer may be referring to a research study: “The Dark Side of Creativity: Biological Vulnerability and Negative Emotions Lead to Greater Artistic Creativity” from Harvard University that “examined how vulnerability to experiencing negative affect, measured with biological products, and intense negative emotions influenced artistic creativity…

“Although some evidence suggests that positive mood can enhance creativity… many other studies have demonstrated that negative affect can have a facilitative effect on creativity.”

From my post Rethinking Depression and Creativity.

Kay Redfield Jamison, MD notes in her book “Touched with Fire” that the majority of people suffering from mood disorder do not possess extraordinary imagination, and most accomplished artists do not suffer from recurring mood swings.

She writes, “To assume, then, that such diseases usually promote artistic talent wrongly reinforces simplistic notions of the ‘mad genius.’ Worse yet, such a generalization trivializes a very serious medical condition and, to some degree, discredits individuality in the arts as well.”

But, she adds, “All the same, recent studies indicate that a high number of established artists – far more than could be expected by chance – meet the diagnostic criteria for manic-depression or major depression…

“In fact, it seems that these diseases can sometimes enhance or otherwise contribute to creativity in some people… Biographical studies of earlier generations of artists and writers also show consistently high rates of suicide, depression and manic-depression.”

From my article Depression and Creativity.

Also see my post Making Good Use of Depression.

Article: What it is like to be a bipolar by Kay Redfield Jamison.

Not everyone agrees with the kinds of statements that Jamison and others make about a correlation between creativity and mood disorders.

Judith Schlesinger, PhD, author of the book The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius, says “The fact is that, despite the efforts of numerous investigators and decades of confident pronouncements by a few, there’s still no concrete, empirical proof that highly creative people are any more likely to be mood-disordered than any other group.”

From my post Rethinking Depression and Creativity.

The image at the top is from the book: James Turrell: Geometry of Light – an image I also used in the article The Art of Seeing Depression, by Tom Wootton, who mentions his appreciation for the artist Turrell, and argues, from his personal experience, for recognizing positive cognitive and emotional value in depression.

Tom Wootton is author of the books The Depression Advantage, and Bipolar In Order.

He is also President of Bipolar Advantage: Outcome-Based Education for Bipolar and Depression.

In his post Rethinking Depression, creativity coach Eric Maisel, Ph.D. declares, “If we can begin to move from the “depression is a mental disorder” model to the idea that human beings must deal more effectively with the realities of human existence, including the realities of sadness, despair, and grief, we will have taken a giant step away from “medicalizing everything” and toward lives lived with renewed passion, power and purpose.”

His new book: Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning.