You know the trope: the creative genius tormented by inner demons, able to create beautiful art but unable to function fully in everyday society. We can easily point to the likes of Van Gogh, Pollock, Plath, Rothko, Hemingway, and Beethoven as examples of this; all were plagued with varying forms of mental illness (both diagnosed and not) and all produced some of the most important art of our time. And while we obviously understand the connection between a person’s mental state and their creativity levels, what does science have to say about the correlation between actual mental illness and creative vision? The answer from the scientific community is a resounding… we don’t know.
In a study published this year by an Icelandic research team, a positive correlation was found between being creatively prolific and having a higher-than-average risk of developing schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The study tested the genetic data of over 86,000 people — with 1,000 of them being creative professionals in the fields of drama, music, writing, dancing and art — and found genetic similarities in those with creative tendencies and mental illness.
Judith Schlesinger, psychologist and author of the 2012 book, The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius, says, however, that the connection is a tenuous one at best. She cites general inadequacies of diagnosing mental illness, as well as the fact that many of the positive correlations drawn are still based on antidotal evidence done in 1891 by Cesare Lombroso. Similarly, a 2009 study done by scholar Mark Davis concludes that people in a positive mood are actually more likely to feel creative and that depression and schizophrenia can actually decrease a person’s productivity levels.
It feels like the notion of the tortured genius has become romanticized in a strange way, as though the devastating effects of mental illness are secondary or even necessary as part of the artist’s process. With so many varying types and degrees of mental illness and no set way to diagnose them, a definitive stance on the subject feels like a long way off.
Are you at your most creative when you’re feeling blue or on top of the world? Tell us in the comment section below.
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