Madness & Creativity
Jesse Richards - April 16, 1997

"'Why is it,' wrote Aristotle in the fourth century B.C., 'that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry or the arts are melancholic?'" (Angier C1.) The idea that "there is a thin line between genius and madness" has long been a widely held belief, even by creators themselves. However, like many clichés, there may be a sizable grain of truth to the saying. There has actually been a great deal of research into the roots of the creative process, and some of the evidence and trends that have been discovered are very interesting. Psychological studies have been done in an effort to show correlations between not only creativity and madnesses that include depression and manic depressive disorder, but also between creativity and moods and creativity and personality. This paper will showcase scientific studies and case examples to illustrate whether or not there is any correlation between madness and creative abilities, and if this information corresponds with the common belief that madness is essential to the creative process

To begin, terms can not be used as liberally as in the common adage, and must be more clearly defined. To be specific, creativity refers to the creative impulses and ability found in people; clear examples include artists, poets, composers, writers, directors, actors and actresses, and others. Because of this, much of the research done on the subject has concentrated on specific famous individuals, such as Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Schumann. Creativity is actually defined as having creative ability or process, which is resulting from originality of thought or expression; of being originative and productive (Webster 341). Madness is obviously not quite a technical term, the dictionary defines it as being mad, having insanity; senseless folly; frenzy or rage (Webster 861). Actually, Robert W. Daly puts forth in his Theory of Madness that madness can even refer to someone simply acting contrary to how they would be expected to act in a situation (384). It is clear, however, that the creativity cliché implies a reference to insanity and psychological problems and conditions. Also, a "touch" of madness is such a vague term that it can be taken to refer to anyone, since it is likely that no person is without a "touch" of any psychological problem. So, only clear correlations of creativity with actual psychological conditions, mental illness, serious problems and severe cases will be examined here.

"Although creativity is an essential element in many professions, the link between creativity and mental instability is more pronounced in the arts " (Angier C1). As a result, many studies have been done on artists and people in creative fields, dating back to the 1970s. It was then that Nancy Andreasen of the University of Iowa completed the first true study of this phenomena (Jamison, 65). She used structured interviews, matched control groups and strict diagnostic criteria in examining 30 creative writers (Jamison, 65). The results were astounding; eighty percent had experienced major depression, hypomania or mania while 43 percent reported a history of these (Jamison, 66). Also of note was the fact that the writer's relatives tended to be more creative as well and suffer similar problems (Jamison, 66). Many studies have shown similar results, as shown below:

While illnesses including depression, major depressive illness, schizophrenia and even alcoholism have been found to influence creativity, the illness that has shown the most correlation with one's creative output is manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder. This disorder is characterized by several symptoms, as explained by Robert Weisberg:

The bipolar disorders (manic-depression, cyclothymia, and bipolar disorder II) differ mainly in severity and duration of symptoms. Manic-depression is characterized by manic periods of highly elevated mood and related symptoms; these periods may alternate with periods of major depression, characterized by loss of interest and pleasure in usual activities, lack of energy, loss of sleep, and feelings of worthlessness and suicidal thoughts (361).

Thus, bipolar disorder, in contrast to forms of depression, has extreme highs as well as extreme lows. These high periods, known as hypomania, are characterized by elevated self-esteem and an increased productivity due to amazingly high levels of energy (Jamison, 65). This seemingly beneficial mood elevation, however, is also often accompanied by impulsive behavior, poor judgement, paranoia and irritability (Jamison, 65). It is during these intense periods of high energy that creative output is boosted. And similarly, it is during the alternating periods of depression that those with bipolar disorder tend to create the least amount of work.

There are several specific examples of creators that are now believed to have had bipolar disorder. One such example is the writer Virginia Woolf. Evidence that includes information from Woolf's diary suggests that her depressive episodes were cyclic - sometimes seasonal and sometimes corresponding with finishing a book (Gutin 77). Yet in between these depressive periods she was highly productive, and was characterized as lively and charming (Gutin 77). Another important example is that of the 19th century composer, Robert Schumann. Schumann's works, charted by the amount he created each year of his life, show a striking relation between his moods and his creativity (Jamison, 66). Two years in which Schumann was hypomanic, 1840 and 1849, he produced his most work, 51 pieces (Jamison, 66). He produced very little to almost no work in the years surrounding these, in which he was depressed and often attempted suicide (Jamison, 66). During a severe depression in 1844, he produced no work at all (Jamison, 66).

Yet another striking example is that of the most infamously unbalanced artists of history, Vincent van Gogh. "Richard Jed Wyatt of the National Institute of Mental Health and [Kay Jamison] have argued in detail that van Gogh's symptoms, the natural course of his illness and his family psychiatric history strongly indicate manic-depressive illness" (Jamison, 67). This diagnosis still holds up even when considering that he may also have suffered from seizures; the extent of his purported absinthe use and compulsive behavior remains unclear (Jamison, 67). Van Gogh's tragic case prompted Anna Freud to write, is the essential conclusion...that even the highly prized and universally envied gift of creative activity may fail tragically to provide sufficient outlets or acceptable solutions for the relief of intolerable internal conflicts and overwhelming destructive powers within the personality (Nagera, 5).

There are many such case studies that have been performed on eminent creators, both living and dead. Among those in which bipolar disorder has been suggested are poets William Blake, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson; novelists Mary Shelley, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Leo Tolstoy, and Robert Louis Stevenson; visual artists Michelangelo, Théodore Géricault, Edvard Munch, Paul Gaugin, and Georgia O'Keefe; and musicians from Mozart and Handel to Charlie Parker (Gutin, 77 and Jamison, 62-3).

There are, however, several things that must be taken into account when examining the evidence suggested by such overall studies and specific case studies. For example, as was brought up in an article in Psychology Today, "...creative types often romanticize mental illness. For many artists, 'it's almost like a badge that makes their work more valid,' notes [Temple University psychologist Robert] Weisberg [, Ph.D.]. That makes them more attuned to symptoms of mental illness" (16). This may, of course, skew the results of any study, if the creators being studied have misrepresentations of their own mental states. Another possibility that critics bring to attention is that the equation could be backwards: perhaps a creative lifestyle promotes psychological breakdown. Unfortunately, not as many studies have been done on the effects of things such as poverty, public indifference, or the lack of emotional stability that often accompany a creative lifestyle, so this hypothesis does not have as much credibility as its counterpart. Another factor to bear in mind is that the popularity of the "creativity requires madness" adage itself can boost the likelihood that researchers may detect mental illness in artists, since, as in any psychological experiment, objectivity is necessary. And, when using specific examples, trends may seem to point towards more examples of psychologically unbalanced artists and creators for the same reason, since these examples are remembered more easily and come to mind more often.

Another link to consider, although this is extensive enough to be a separate subject entirely, is the possibility that creativity is both biological and hereditary. Biologically, Natalie Angier reports that, "Apart from mood disorders, other disturbances of the brain have been associated with artistic creation, in particular temporal lobe epilepsy" (C8). In this disease, the temporal lobes of the brain are seized by chaotic hyperactivity that can prompt symptoms such as hallucinations and an unquenchable desire to release creative energy (Angier, C8). In terms of heredity, many forms of mental illness have been found to have hereditary trends (especially bipolar disorder itself); this would lead one to believe that these diseases may be linked with the possible traits relating to creativity (Jamison 65).

Even taking these points into consideration, the high amount of mental illness found in creative people is a pattern that can not be ignored. Scientific studies and historic examples certainly seem to confirm the correlation between creativity and madness. However, according to JoAnn Gutin, "Even the most ardent advocates of the connection concede that most creativity has nothing to do with madness and that most of the mentally ill are no more creative than the rest of us" (77). The emphasis of the word 'most' in this statement leads to the conclusion that while there is a strong correlation, it is not as straightforward as the cliché implies. Perhaps the best way to describe the phenomenon is by saying that mental illness can allow for certain insights and a level of energy that enhances the creativity of naturally creative people. It can also be put forth that mental illness may be necessary for one to reach an extremely high level of creativity, as a result of a high level of productivity. This high level of creativity seems to be the amount that creators have to reach to become the legendary artists, writers, and thinkers that were mentioned in earlier examples; and their familiarity serves to also bring their common madness more easily to mind. As was also mentioned before, other factors have also added to the adage, such as the solitude often granted to the mentally ill can allow more time to create, and psychological problems give the artist more ideas and experiences to draw from. Mental illness can change a person's perspective to original ideas that would be hard for 'sane' people to come up with. Since much of creativity revolves directly around the originality of the work, psychologically troubled creative people may be considered more creative due to their intense originality. To conclude, it is evident that studies definitely show a strong tendency for mental illness to enhance creativity; however, mental illness is not totally essential nor the sole contributor to the creative process.

Works Cited

Angier, Natalie. "An Old Idea About Genius Wins New Scientific Support." New York Times (Late New York Edition) Oct 12 1993: C1+.

Angier, Natalie. "In the Temporal Lobes, Seizures and Creativity." New York Times (Late New York Edition) Oct 12 1993: C8.

Bihalj-Merin, Oto and Max Seidel. Goya Then and Now. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. "The Creative Personality." Psychology Today v.29 July/Aug 1996: 36-40.

Daly, Robert W. "A Theory of Madness." Psychiatry v.54 Nov 1991: 368-85.

Gutin, JoAnn C. "That Fine Madness." Discover v. 17 Oct. 1996: 74-82.

Jamison, Kay R. "Manic-Depressive Illness and Creativity." Scientific American v.272 Feb 1995: 62-7.

Nagera, Humberto. Vincent Van Gogh: A Psychological Study. New York: International Universities Press, Inc., 1967.

"Portrait of the Artist as a Manic-Depressive." Psychology Today v.28 July/Aug 1995: 16.

Richards, Ruth. "Assessing Everyday Creativity: Characteristics of the Lifetime Creativity Scales and Validation With Three Large Samples." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology v.54 March 1988: 476-85.

Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary. New York: Barnes and Noble Books: 1994.

Weisberg, Robert W. "Genius and Madness? A Quasi-Experimental Test of the Hypothesis That Manic-Depression Increases Creativity." Psychological Science v. 5, no.6 Nov 1994: 361-67.