Well before the rise and fall of Michael Jackson, aka ‘Wacko Jacko’ the idea that the gift of exceptional creativity or ‘genius’ is all too often packaged with mental ill health, has long had cultural currency. If someone mentions this within our earshot at a party, should we mercilessly expose their naivety, or is there substance to this?*
There’s an immediate problem with definition; ‘exceptional creativity’ or ‘genius’, ‘madness’ or ‘mental disorder’ are in themselves difficult to exactly define and a full examination of their meanings would amount to a weighty tome. All these terms are in fact more or less vague and at best we can try to offer them a degree of precision by anchoring them within a set of terms we hope are more exactly understood. There is no agreed definition of mental ill health, and indeed the various ways to which psychiatric problems as a category are referred – mental ill health/disorder/disease are three – are not synonyms. Equally, the Oxford English Dictionary offers eight meanings for ‘genius’, the most relevant of which for this purpose is ‘native intellectual power of an exalted type, such as is attributed to those who are esteemed greatest in any department of art, speculation, or practice; instinctive and extraordinary capacity for imaginative creation, original thought, invention, or discovery’.
With this difficulty noted, what can studies tell us? Looking in the past the mood disorders of poets in Britain and Ireland born in the hundred years 1705 – 1805 have been investigated. This time period includes esteemed figures such as Lord Byron, Samuel Johnson, William Blake and William Wordsworth. A high rate of mood disorders was found, with this group 30 times more likely to suffer bipolar disorder and five times as likely to commit suicide. These results are striking, but problematic. It can be difficult enough to determine whether someone whom you are directly interviewing is mentally disordered, so the reliability of a diagnosis made over the passage of centuries from biographical data is seriously in question. Furthermore we have really no idea what minds were like in the past, and in diagnosing historical figures with mental disorders characterised well after their deaths, we must recognise that we project ourselves onto them.
Looking at living people avoids some of these difficulties and another study interviewed a group of 47 eminent British writers and artists and found that 38% had been treated for mood disorder. The poets involved were particularly unfortunate and half had needed hospitalization.* In line with speculation that bipolar patients are particularly creative, many of the subjects reported changes in mood, cognition and behaviour either preceding or coinciding with the creative process. In a similar study on the other side of the Atlantic, a group of 30 creative writers living in Iowa was interviewed. The researcher was actually expecting to find a correlation between creativity and schizophrenia but actually no such was seen. There was however abnormally high levels of mood disorder in both the writers and their relatives; eighty percent of the sample had experienced at least one episode of major depression, hypomania or mania compared with 30% in the control group. The group was followed for the next 15 years and it was found that 43% had bipolar disorder compared to only 10% of the control group and 1% of the general population.
A further two ore studies seem to confirm these findings. In Denmark bipolar patients and their relatives were interviewed about their lives and their responses were evaluated using a standard measure of lifetime creative achievement. The patients and their relatives both scored higher than the control group. A Stanford university study found that people with bipolar disorder and creative discipline controls scored significantly higher than healthy controls on a measure of creativity called the Barron-Welsh Art Scale.
As well as mood disorders at least one study has suggested that schizophrenia may also be implicated. An investigation of the occupations of the relatives of Icelandic patients with schizophrenia found evidence of high levels of creativity. Do then psychosis and creativity have common genetic roots?
I haven’t looked at these studies of living patients closely but they do suggest that the correlation between creativity and mental ill health cannot be dismissed as their findings are quite consistent. It is interesting that the creative process does not appear to be restricted to a single category of mental ill health; this may either mean that the distinctions we make between different mental states are overconfident, or that it is the altered state that is important, but not its precise nature. The studies are still relatively few however and the numbers of patients included appear limited. Their definition of creativity is also narrow, being restricted to the arts and such a one dimensional view of creativity may reflect familiar prejudice against the merits scientific disciplines. It seems unlikely that a person who is successful in science, business or politics will not have to show creative thinking. There is also no discussion of the direction of causation; those with mental health problems may choose to work in creative areas as the discipline required for full time employment is not necessary. Equally it is also possible that the isolation, rumination and mental effort required for the act of artistic creation will also have an effect on mental health. Also note that if there is a connection between mental disorder and exceptional creativity, these may not necessarily both be in the same individual; it is possible that there could exist an excess of mental disorder within the family of the creative individual who is him/herself in fact largely unaffected.
Yet even if studies were uniformly unsupportive I think that the idea of the madness and genius being co-dependent would persist. The creative process is generally romanticized, a phenomenon in itself unremarkable as this maintains privilege, impresses patrons, and recruits muses. Perhaps there something mysterious and unexplainable about the creative process such that we feel it requires something equally mysterious and unexplained – mental illness – to account for it; or do we feel that dramatic works must necessarily have dramatic conceptions? Or in order to soothe the doubts we have about our own achievements do we wish to see talented artists as in some way ‘other’. Another advantage of mental ill health and creativity being in some way connected – and one that is more likely to mean that a possibly spurious correlation is paraded as fact – is that this allows something positive to come from mental illness. Note also the idea of ‘genius’ is in itself culturally dependent, being as it is a Western individualistic notion that genius exists within a single person, a great man or woman without whom society would not move forward. A discussion of the good fortune that lead to their recognition is not generally undertaken. What constitutes either genius or madness is of course highly subjective and hostage to the gaze we bring and the assumptions and values that gaze has implicit.
Presumably, if the association is genuine, mental ill health must at some level help with the creative process. A creative person may differ from others in that he or she is more open to experience, is more exploratory, shows increased risk taking, and is more tolerant of ambiguity. A particularly creative person may experience the order and structure that others find comforting as inhibiting and may feel the need to confront norms and conventions. Such traits may make him or her more perceptive but also more vulnerable to emotional turmoil. It does seem likely that artistic creativity will benefit from a variety of experiences and perhaps the struggle to come to terms with personal emotional extremes supports the process as certain thoughts may only be accessible to us when in certain states of mind. Times of mental health could draw on times of mental ill health for inspiration as Lewis Wolpert has commented. Depression could help put into perspective thoughts and feelings that have been generated during a more manic phase and in this way it could take an editorial role.
Mental health is however also necessary for great work, as this requires concentration, discipline and great effort. Mental ill health is clearly neither necessary nor sufficient for genius given that not every creative person has a mental health problem. There does seem to be something to ‘madness and genius’ but how strong a correlation is unclear and is likely to remain hostage to where we choose to draw our lines in the sand.
* A recent debate at the Maudsley Hospital took this on and debated the motion ‘this house believes that madness is the price we pay for exceptional creativity’.
None of the speakers were particularly perceptive alas. It’s available as a podcast, so no need to take my word for this.
** Comedians are classically seen as depressives. Oliver James certainly thinks so. In their book The Naked Jape, Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves discuss the ‘sad clown’ stereotype and basically disagree with it. They quote a 1992 study by psychologist James Rotton which found that comedians were actually no more prone to suicidal depression than any other group and there was no difference between the life expectancy of a comedian and any other sort of entertainer.
Assuming that we buy the line that childhood trauma or hardship can, in some cases, spur individuals on to high-profile achievements, it’s not surprising that many successful and famous jokers have less than Walton-esque family backgrounds. But would you find any fewer damaged individuals if you were to look at rock musicians, or actors, or any other deeply competitive profession where the stakes are high, your personality is exposed to harsh public criticism and you have a bit too much time on your hands?
Lucy Greeves was kind enough to reply to my emails and said that she’s found from her own experience that the trait that most exemplifies comedians is competitiveness rather than melancholy.
I think the thing that strikes a lot of people as odd when they first realise it is how serious most professional comics are in “real life”. I’m not sure why this surprises us, though. We don’t expect opera singers to converse in arias. But because a really good comedian’s trick is to convince his audience that he’s not using a script, we buy into that illusion that he’s just a really hilarious guy who has agreed to be our mate for the evening. Imagine our disappointment when he doesn’t say funny stuff all the time – perhaps he’s depressed?
These three books have sections on this subject:
Madness explained Richard Bentall
The meaning of madness Neel Burton
Malignant Sadness Lewis Wolpert