Is there scientific evidence to back up the link between artistic output and mental illness, or is it all just down to society’s unfortunate tendency to romanticise mental health problems?
The stereotype of psychological illness being linked to artistic inspiration is a strongly established one. Almost everybody can name an artist, from almost any field, who has suffered from some form of psychosis; from the likes of the poet Sylvia Plath to musicians such as Kurt Cobain, or visual artists like Van Gogh. But is this stereotype born from evidence found in clinical studies – or are these particular artists’ stories just more memorable?
The first problem to deal with when assessing this question is looking at how to define and measure ‘creativity’ and ‘mental illness’. One of the mental illnesses most commonly assessed when looking at creativity is schizophrenia, a type of mental disorder often resulting in hallucinations, a warped perception of reality and a tendency towards fantasy and delusion. Schizophrenia isn’t the kind of condition that is always experienced in the same way; different patients will suffer different symptoms at varying intensities. Like most mental illnesses, it falls on a spectrum. As such, when investigating schizophrenia, most researchers will separate the spectrum into three distinct categories: ‘schizophrenic’, ‘schizotypal’ and ‘average’. Schizophrenic is the most serious, whereas ‘schizotypal’ lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. ‘Average’ represents minimal symptoms.
Differences in creativity between these three groups have been examined in a number of different ways. In one experiment by Bradley S. Folley, the performances of groups of schizotypal, schizophrenic and average people were assessed in a task in which they had to generate ‘uses’ for both conventional and ambiguous objects. The results showed that while there were no significant differences between the performances of the schizophrenic and the average group, the schizotypal group performed far better. This idea is reflected in other studies that have found an over-representation of those with schizophrenic relatives in ‘creative’ professions, as well as in the fact that many notably highly creative people had close relatives who suffered from the condition. Both Albert Einstein’s and Bertrand Russell’s sons, for example, had schizophrenia. Perhaps those who moderately express the schizophrenic phenotype are able to enjoy some form of increased creativity, without the debilitating effects of the more serious end of the spectrum. But why does schizophrenia lead to this increase in creativity? And is there any neural correlation we can observe?
In his experiment, Folley also measured activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. He found that the extent of activation in certain parts of the prefrontal cortex was a strong indicator of how well subjects performed in his creativity assessment. He made sure to test only right handed subjects, and found that those who performed best were the subjects who had strong activity in the right prefrontal cortex. This shows that schizotypal subjects are able to recruit the right prefrontal cortex to a greater extent, possibly allowing them to make novel connections with greater ease than other people. This hypothesis is supported by further studies that indicate an increased rate of ambidextrous ability among schizotypal people.
But it’s not just schizophrenia that has been suspected of having a link with increased creativity. Bipolar disorder, a condition which results in cycles of manic euphoria and depression, has also been linked to creative output. A team of researchers at Oregon State found, in one of the first large scale reviews on the subject, a significantly elevated concentration of bipolar sufferers working in highly creative professions. Katherine Rankin, from the University of California, suggests that the cause for this increased creativity is very different to that in schizotypal people. She found that those suffering from bipolar disorder have diminished frontal regulation of the amygdala (the brain’s emotional centre) and other subcortical systems, leading to significantly greater compulsiveness and instability. This may be what allows them to make new and interesting connections more easily. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that most bipolar artists, such as Sylvia Plath, were only able to successfully harness this creativity during the euphoric points – not the depressive points – of their mood cycles. Scientific studies show similar results: Takahiro Nematoda found that depression and schizophrenia decrease creativity, while Mark Davis found that positive mood in general boosts creativity.
So there’s substantial evidence that creativity and some forms of mental illness are tied together, especially those illnesses that involve increased prefrontal cortex stimulation. However, it’s also been suggested that any type of low mood, however it’s generated, will impair the ability to think creatively. Further research into the genetic effects of schizophrenic and bipolar phenotypes could lead to interesting insights into how genetics and creativity are linked. However, whatever the results, there should be no reason to romanticise mental illness as a short cut to creative genius.
Featured Image: Flickr