The myth of the mad-genius is prevalent in movies, books, and popular culture and has been a belief that goes back as far as Aristotle.
Is there really any truth to this notion? Is there a significant relationship between creativity and mental illness?
Research reveals that the rates of psychological disorder in samples of highly creative people are somewhat higher than in the general population.
There are certainly many notable creative figures who suffered from some form of mental instability.
Abraham Lincoln has been reported to suffer from depression
Vincent Van Gogh was known to be peculiar and suffer from unstable moods.
Virginia Woolf was a brilliant novelist who suffered from bipolar mood swings.
John Nash, Nobel Prize Winner in mathematics, was the figure of the movie A Beautiful Mind, faced a life long battle with Schizophrenia.
Many other writers and artists also suffered from symptoms of mental illness including authors Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens, entertainer Marilyn Monroe, and composer Robert Schumann.
Specifically, there is research revealing a relationship between bipolar disorder and creativity. For instance, clinical psychologist and author Kay Redfield Jamison’s work has described and reported the connection between artistic tendencies and bipolar disorder.
Her book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament explores autobiographical accounts of mental illness from dead artists like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Roethke, Edgar Allen Poe, Vincent Van Gogh, Lord Byron and others. Often a connection can be seen between a family history of psychopathology and highly creative families.
What is the relationship?
When considering the creative personality in general, it affords some connections with psychopathology. Creative people tend to be more unconventional and nonconformist. They seek out people and activities that afford novel, unusual, and complex experiences and have an overall expression of eccentricity.
As Jamison puts it, “Many of the changes in mood, thinking and perception that characterize the mildly manic states – restlessness, ebullience, expansiveness, irritability, grandiosity, quickened and more finely tuned senses, intensity of emotional experiences, diversity of thought, and rapidity of associational processes – are highly characteristic of creative thought as well.” (105)
There is a catch though…
In essence, someone with psychopathology may think in a more unorthodox and flexible manner, and take a perspective that is outside the box. However, the catch is that they must be able to channel this thinking in a productive and effective manner.
From this view, intelligence is a factor that distinguishes those people who are able to sublimate and convert their psychopathology into positive expression. Without self-control and willpower, psychopathology does not necessarily translate into creativity.
I would never want to glorify the distress that someone with bipolar or schizophrenia may experience, though there is something about the angst, thinking process, and perspective that psychopathology permits, that seems to relate to the expression of creativity. The catch is that the individual must possess the motivation and resourcefulness to make their unique insights and perceptions innovative.
Do you think psychopathology really translates into creativity? Is the “mad-genius” just a myth?
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