Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Many people automatically assume there is a thin line between creativity and mental illness, citing anecdotal evidence and pointing to famous "crazy" artists from the past and present. However, this conclusion is quite difficult to prove, as reflected by many attempts to find solid evidence through research studies.

A connection between madness and creative genius has been made throughout history. Shakespeare wrote that, “The lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact.” Proust said, “Everything great in the world is created by neurotics.”  Even in ancient times Plato and Aristotle spoke of creativity as “divine madness” as being “a gift from the Gods” and that genius was infused with a mixture of insanity.  Yet, until about 25 years ago, research on this topic was limited.  Determining the validity of a link between mental illness and creative people is still hotly debated, despite the over 9000 studies conducted on creativity and mental illness between 1960 and 1991.

There are many flaws in studies researching creativity and its relationship to mental disorders, casting doubt on the reliability of the creativity/mental illness connection.  Even though it is extremely difficult to prove a link between creativity and mental illness, the consistency with which humanity has made this connection through the ages indicates that a link does exist!

Because creativity has been valued throughout history, determining a link is important.  Why?  If we can determine a link, we may be able to determine a cause and, in doing so, help creative persons avoid suffering and maximize their potential good for themselves and society.  Furthermore, because creativity is thought to be an ability that most of us use or can learn to use in everyday life, identifying the aspects and possible links between creativity and mental illness can have universal benefit and appeal.

But exactly what are we measuring?  Interestingly, there is no difference in the definition of madness and inspiration in Latin.  One essential difficulty in establishing a link between mental illness and creativity is in defining the terms creativity and mental illness. How can researchers measure something if they are not exact about the meanings of what they are measuring? In the field of psychology, and especially for the purposes of measurement, the definition of creativity is varied. Many authors have attempted to describe creativity.  But researchers have yet not arrived at a consensus regarding the process, the product and the person of creativity.

The definition of mental illness is also problematic.  Although the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) comes to a consensus with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Classification of Disease (ICD) systems on the reliability of various mental illness categories, these instruments have not improved on the validity of how to categorize mental illness.

Some descriptors of creativity in the research include:  introspective, intelligent, less compliant to social norms, enthusiastic, energetic, sensitive, adventurous, radical, and persistent.  Obviously, creativity involves many other abilities and qualities and the interplay of these qualities complicates the search for a universal definition of creativity. Descriptions of creativity appear to vary and sometimes are contradictory, which leaves us with the question, “Do creative people fit into society or don’t they?”

We agree that creative people have original ideas, however, just because people have original ideas, they are not necessarily creative.  Another apparent contradiction in the definition of creativity is that creative people are intrinsically motivated (from within themselves) (according to personality measures of creative people) but they also have been found to be extrinsically motivated (from outside factors).  Further confusing the issue, some researchers warn that when both extrinsic and intrinsic factors do not coincide these factors create psychological stress and can cause madness.

Most definitions of mental illness are based on symptoms, signs, and some perceived disability.  Even though a convergence of signs, symptoms and disabilities point to a particular mental illness, mental health professionals continue to have difficulty diagnosing illnesses such as personality disorders, schizophrenia, much less more mild or atypical disorders. How then can we establish a link between creativity and mental illness if diagnoses of mental illness vary and are especially difficult to establish in creative people (by virtue of their creativity!)?

The question of finding universal definitions is further complicated when considering the framework of studies on creativity and mental illness. If studies are produced within various disciplines (e.g., behavioral, biological, clinical, cognitive, etc.), the definitions are tweaked accordingly.

There are also different types of creativity to consider used in different domains. Researchers need to recognize these domains and consider them when trying to measure creativity. Some people are creative musically, some mathematically, some verbally, some bodily, and so on.  Within each of these domains, there are differences between creative people.  For example, poets differ from playwrights, who differ from comic writers and artists, designers, and performing artists.  In addition, they all differ in their cognitive patterns.  Considering the above complications and contradictions, it seems that a link between creativity and mental illness is extremely difficult to prove.

Recently, however, encouraging news regarding a universal aspect and definition for creativity can be found in numerous articles on the link between mental illness and creativity.  Many professionals say that the cognitive processes of creative people are unique and follow Janusian processes: that is, “…the ability to resolve antinomies or to accommodate apparently opposite or conflicting traits in one’s self-concept.”  This concept at least partly explains a connection between the Janusian thought process and creative individuals. Janusian thought enables creative people to think and conceive of antithetical and contradictory ideas at the same time.  The literature review on links between mental illness and creativity do not appear to dispute this aspect of creativity.  That is an exciting prospect!  Perhaps, in applying Janusian thought to a literature review on creativity and mental illness, it can bridge the apparent contradictions found in the mass of definitions on creativity and mental illness used by researchers and facilitate a more "creative" approach to and understanding of the subject.

(More to come on this subject.  Feel free to ask me for references!)

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