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All about psychology > On Creativity and Mental Illness

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message 1: by Geri (new)

Geri (WomanReadingBook) Many creative individuals throughout history have struggled with some sort of mental illness or neurological disorder (such as epilepsy), whether it was recognized in their own life & times, or have been diagnosed posthumously. Well-known cases include: Abraham Lincoln, William Blake, Winston Churchill, Kay Redfield Jamison, Patty Duke, John Nash, Vincent Van Gogh, Saint Teresa of Avila, to name just a few.

I believe that many brain/mind "illnesses" can result in expressions of artistic creativity or philosophical/spiritual insight, and that many of humankind's greatest individuals have tested their mettle by coping with their disorder. Even personality disorders lend themselves to characteristics commonly seen in notable people of history, although sometimes with negative or disastrous consequences. While Stalin or Hitler easily come to mind as extreme examples of psychopathy, the fictional character Scarlett O'Hara would cease to be without her histrionics.

Question: Whether biographical, historical or even fictional, what books, individuals or characters describe or highlight a connection between mental or brain disorders and creativity or greatness?

Additional Topic of Discussion: By therapeutic or pharmaceutical intervention, are we hindering creative expression?

I'll start off with one such example, "Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament" by Kay Redfield Jamison.

message 2: by Sunil (new)

Sunil (sunilification) | 2 comments This might be of interest to you. A famous paper By prof Post in the 1994 British Journal of Psychiatry. It looked into the psychopathology of 291 famous individuals. But I am afraid you need to have access.

message 3: by Geri (new)

Geri (WomanReadingBook) Thank you, Sunil. This looks like a fascinating study. I could only access the abstract (, but it seems to support my thoughts about the correlation between creativity & mental illness.


message 4: by Sunil (last edited Jan 16, 2009 12:24AM) (new)

Sunil (sunilification) | 2 comments You are welcome Geri. The association has been well studied for a while now. The paper is fascinating indeed, and quite detailed. It also covers addictions and sexual preferences. Chase it up at your library , else I guess if I remember rightly I must have a copy stored somewhere in my hard disk. Let me know.

message 5: by Caitlin (new)

Caitlin | 2 comments I think a perfect example of this would be the poet, Sylvia Plath. She was given electroshock therapy in... 1955, and it seems to have worked for a while. She killed herself in 1963. As her life got harder, she had to write more... which I would think of as common in anyone with a mental illness. Sometimes the only thing listening is a piece of paper.

There are tons of musicians who follow this as well. Conor Oberst, who has depression and has been medicated (and self-medicated), but he still writes and everything... it's just his music isn't quite as depressing and full of death as it used to be. Part of that might be that he's growing up now. Max Bemis of Say Anything is bipolar and is probably more successful now that he's been medicated than he was before... I'd like to think that's because the medication makes it easier for the band members to deal with him AND because the medication helps balance him and helps him focus. Emilie Autumn, who recently published her part-autobiography and part-fiction (we think) novel, The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls (which I strongly recommend) is also bipolar. I think being medicated can help the person to an extent. I don't think creativity is limited to people with mental illnesses, and I don't think people who are medicated for it will completely lose it... I have this silly idea that mental illnesses are just a part of who we are, and the medication simply makes living more bearable... and motivates the person to actually being creative instead of lying in bed for weeks on end...

This isn't something I've studied though, but I do find it interesting. I see more people who do music with mental illnesses, probably because in their songs they reference it... so I'm not sure that helps you or not.


message 6: by James (new)

James | 59 comments The correlation is very intriguing. It would be fascinating to see some studies looking at details - what forms of creative activities and/or other accomplishments seemed to go with what mental/emotional situations would be one, and another would be looking at creative works and trying to tease out not only what seemed due to internal factors that are part of one's makeup, but also due to external sources of distress (and eustress.)

There are a lot of folks for whom meds are absolutely necessary, though not sufficient without therapy, to have any kind of quality of life or even to stay alive at all; and as Caitlin notes, the idea that treating an illness with meds would kill a person's creativity is not true, but rather, it's often the case that by allowing him/her to function, it enables that creativity to be expressed. That's another area it would be interesting to research.

It would also be interesting to study the interaction between creativity, illness, and non-medical interventions like psychotherapy and mutual-help recovery programs such as the 12-step groups. I've known artists, writers, and musicians who, along with not being miserable, were pretty productive while engaged in counseling and recovery programs.

I've seen one other thing in 12-step folks that I find intriguing, though it isn't related to creative activities. A lot of people with addictions seem to have a lot of the characteristics of the Cluster B personality disorders when they first get into recovery, particularly the borderline and/or antisocial PDs, but also the narcissistic and histrionic. Over time, though, the ones who are really thorough about working their recovery programs seem to get less and less personality-disordered.

Another factor that comes into play is PTSD. A lot of the intense and wrenching material in the arts - poetry and fiction, music, and visual arts - is sparked and fueled by trauma. There is also a strong correlation between severe PTSD and what look like symptoms of the borderline and histrionic PDs, whether the person involved is especially creative or not. In the lives of several people with whom I've had the opportunity to do prolonged work on their PTSD, as they achieved relief from the PTSD symptoms, the personality-disordered-looking patterns diminished and went away too.

message 7: by Kevin (new)

Kevin Lee (KevinAlanLee) | 2 comments Hi everyone,

I agree with James in that medications are absolutely necessary, and that they allow the "expression" of one's creativity. Persons with schizophrenia, like myself, do experience grand delusions, and persons with other disorders may experience extreme hallucinations. The average mentally healthy person will never experience these mental states. Hence, forms of creativity could come from our "unique" experiences.

Nonetheless, when I was ill, I could neither work nor independently take care of myself. Only after I received treatment was I able to complete my university studies and write my manuscript.

message 8: by James (new)

James | 59 comments It's similar with bipolar disorder (which I have) - a hypomanic state, just a tad manic, is exhilarating and can enable a person to be very creative and productive; but when it continues to increase into full-blown mania, coherent functioning becomes impossible, and then there's the cliff-dive into dangerous depression that always follows that mania. If I had not gotten psychiatric care and stayed med-compliant, I could not sustain any close relationships, could not count on finishing anything I started, might well end up broke and homeless or in prison due to horrible lapses of judgment while manic, and might well have killed myself by now during one of the depressive episodes. When I think about all the span of human history and the fact that people with bipolar disorder had no effective treatment available until the last couple of generations, I realize how incredibly lucky I am not to have been born even forty years earlier (I'm in my 50s now.)
Throw in the fact that I'm also a recovering alcoholic and the 12-step programs didn't exist for all those millennia either, not until 75 years ago, and the image of what my life would have been in any other time is heartbreaking.
And finally, I have to recognize that in most of the world, people are not much better off in those regards than a thousand years ago, and I know how lucky I am to live where recovery programs and psychiatric treatment are available.

message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

Google "Sylvia Plath Effect"...very interesting.

message 10: by Karina (new)

Karina | 1 comments Just to throw a wrench into everything - how about creativity not related at all to "illness"? Maybe life experience, difference from the norm? Has anyone evaluated the millions of "healthy" creative geniuses? Creativity is merely the ability to make new, unique connections between concepts/information. As they say in permaculture, the most creative biological areas are the ones "on the edges" between different ecosystems. For people, this would mean life experiences or ideas that take you away from the norms that make up society.

Also, about medications, I highly recommend reading Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker. This is not to in any way claim that they are not useful, and I would especially never tell another person what his/her own experience has been. However, working in the mental health system, I can tell you that psychotropic medications are ABSOLUTELY overused and ABSOLUTELY disable thousands of people, keeping them from being not just creative, but from inhabiting their own lives at all. As a patient of several decades, I can tell you that the medications never helped me and my brain, especially memory and being able to order thoughts, was damaged by ECT; my brain was NOT made more creative.

And as just a tiny factoid, people around the world without access to "modern treatment" tend to recover more quickly and more fully than we in the US do.


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