in Thinking about psychiatry

Madness and Genius

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?

Interesting huh?


These three books have sections on this subject:

Madness explained Richard Bentall
The meaning of madness Neel Burton
Malignant Sadness Lewis Wolpert

Write a Comment



  1. If we’re talking about madness and creativity, then we have Peter Walock who committed suicide, Robert Schumann who was manic depressive, Ivor Gurney and Bernard van Dieren who were schizophrenic; as was the painter Richard Dadd.

    Interesting post.



  2. I agree that, as with many great debates, the “madness and genius” link debate is greatly hampered by problems with definition. Was Jackson ‘mad’ merely because he was ‘wacko’ (ie eccentric, surrounded by sycophants, and probably high on prescription drugs)?

    Try also: “Touched with Fire: Manic-depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament” by Kay Redfield Jamison, famous mood disorder researcher / therapist. She has also experienced bipolar illness and has a family history of this, so her opinions can’t be entirely dispassionate – but are well thought out.

  3. Let’s not forget Spike Milligan:

    On the Ning Nang Nong
    Where the Cows go Bong!
    and the monkeys all say BOO!
    There’s a Nong Nang Ning
    Where the trees go Ping!
    And the tea pots jibber jabber joo.
    On the Nong Ning Nang
    All the mice go Clang
    And you just can’t catch ’em when they do!
    So its Ning Nang Nong
    Cows go Bong!
    Nong Nang Ning
    Trees go ping
    Nong Ning Nang
    The mice go Clang
    What a noisy place to belong
    is the Ning Nang Ning Nang Nong!!

    It wouldn’t be hard to imagine that he was manic when he wrote that.

  4. I’ve always been skeptical of the idea that depression could aid in creativity – just on the basis that it my experience depression means not feeling keen on creating a sandwich let alone anything more involved.

    I suppose there might be something in the idea that depression teaches you things that are then useful when you come to do creative stuff after the depression has passed.

    I’m not convinced, though. I suppose going through any difficult experience could be a useful source of matieral for a novelist or poet, but I don’t think experiencing depression would be any more useful than, say, having a heart attack, or breaking your leg…

  5. @Neuroskeptic

    I think creativity tends to be more associated with mania rather than depression. There’s a lot of great artists who had bipolar disorder, but they tended to do all their work in the manic phase rather than when depressed.

  6. To quote from ‘The Meaning of Madness’ by Neel Burton:

    ‘After carying out a detailed study of some of the most eminent personalities of the twentieth century, the psychiatrist Felix Post (1913-2001) postulated that the psychological discomfort that accompanies a mental disorder is in itself the principal driver of creative expression, and many artists have asserted that the creative act enables them both to stave off and to sublime their depressive anguish.’

  7. hi! i´ve found your post really interesting.. i think there is so much to continue investigating on humanities and psychiatry
    the context where all things happen is so important on the “label” or “diagnose” and therefore treatment you are going to use for your patient…
    personally i believe that depressive states or periods of “personal crisis” can teachs us how to look life on a more creative and comprehensive way… for the chinese the “ideograma” (i don´t know how it´s written in english) of crisis is the same as opportunity, i think that´s a wise way of seeing life.

  8. Hi,

    I think I can add to this discussion since I am an artist diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Each of you has touched on a piece of my experience.

    I do believe there’s a difference in my perceptions, openmindedness, and sensitivities due to my moods that enable me to see things a little differently. There’s also a sense of making connections that aren’t obvious to others. I think in pictures and at times have strong emotional reactions to things that can seem perfectly ordinary to others. I perceive things differently.

    I agree that creativity is not limited to the arts. I would think creativity is a requirement for innovative thinking regardless of the profession. All it is, in my view, is making connections and being willing to look at a situation differently. Taking chances and wondering what would happen if I made this or that change.

    I don’t know about the word “genius” and I’m not sure what that is. While there are certainly instances, I think most of the time what we consider to be genius is a touch of innate characteristics that require an enormous amount of work to develop.

    The problem is that I am generally unable to get much drawing or painting done when I’m at either extreme. Most people I talk to are a little surprised by that. They tend to have a mental image of a brooding artist releasing angst or the energetic painter attacking a canvas.

    However, what hasn’t been mentioned, is that there is a great deal of therapeutic benefit in having this creative outlet. In a depressive episode I can lose myself for hours and when I’m manic I can generate broad based unconventional ideas for development when I’m more stable. It’s a release, and makes the discomfort more bearable. Sometimes when I can’t describe in words what is going on in my head I can paint it and there’s a satisfaction in seeing those invisible disordered thoughts in a more concrete way. I’m much more pleasant.

    I wouldn’t be able to not paint, if that makes any sense.

  9. A suggestion for your further reading; In “The madness of Adam and Eve: how schizophrenia shaped humanity“, David Horrobin looks at a possible connection between madness and creativity from an evolutionary perspective. The author attempts to explain the “great leap forward” in human creativity that took place about 10,000 years ago in terms of changes in brain biochemistry that resulted from a change of diet (grossly oversimplified summary of his theories). This he links to a genetic tendency toward both schizophrenia (and related disorders) and creativity & high intelligence. He cites examples of Nobel prizewinning scientists that have suffered from mental illness, suggesting that, as you said, this phenomenon is not just limited to the arts (although the private lives of scientists don’t tend to be subjected to the same scrutiny, so we are less likely to hear about them). I guess you could say that either creativity is a positive side effect of ‘disordered’ mental states, or, mental illness is a price we sometimes pay for the more flexible thought processes possessed by creative individuals. Its a compelling argument, I have no idea whether it is correct as I don’t have enough expertise in all the fields involved, but its one of the most thought provoking books I’ve ever read.

  10. This is a reasonable brief assessment of some of the studies, but there are many more out there. I wonder if you were awake when you listened to the Maudsley debate because clearly a lot of interesting things were said. I disagree with the nihilistic notion that creativity and mental disorder are held indefinitely hostage by our poor ability to define what we are talking about. This can be overcome simply by basing research on extremes that only radicals would try to deny the existence of. There are also very explicit measures for creativity and mental disorder out there. It is time, money and effort that is needed to measure these things, not sophistry.

  11. There may or may not be any link between creativity and madness. This subject has been romanticized by writers, psychologists and psychiatrists. Very often, the artist (including writers and philosophers) have been called mad because they present something unique or shock the prevalent and established ideas by their shockingly novel ideas. Secondly, as they are lost in their thoughts or the dream world of their imagination, they tend to cut themselves off from their surroundings and become somewhat reclusive, making others call them mad. Thirdly, the sudden burst of some unique idea in the mind of the artist or the writer makes him behave in an eccentric way which may make him seem unhinged. If Socrates would often stand in one corner of the street for hours together lost in his thoughts, the onlookers called him weird. If on getting the solution to his long-thought of problem, Archimedes runs naked out of his bath room, he was only sans his clothes, not sans his mental faculties. The pressure of the creative process also often leaves the author bewildered. According to a psychiatrist, the mind of a mad person is like a clock which is out of order and stuck at a particular time. A creative mind is also like that clock as his mind is stuck for days together fixed on some particular idea. During the time when he is involved in that creative process, he may seem mad.

  12. This article on Genius and Madness is very good. It casts light on the subject in a very wise way.


    Belo Horizonte/Brazil.