Thursday, July 28, 2011


A Cow Ruminating
"What if Schopenhauer was wrong and cows don't have rights?"

Supports: The Case for the Link

A famous study on Abstract Expressionist artists by Schildkraut et al. (1994) refutes other researchers’ findings that there is a lack of evidence to support the link between creativity and mental illness. Schildkraut et al. made an empirical study on case studies of 15 contemporary artists of the New York School of Abstractionism. While the article admits that criteria for including subjects into a study are usually somewhat arbitrary, it maintains that the amazingly high coincidence of psychopathology in these creative artists show a link between mental disorders and creative individuals.

Despite possible questions that can be raised regarding the time perspective in the experimental design of their study, these researchers found impressive ratios that showed most artists suffered from depressive disorders compounded by alcoholism. Noteworthy is that seven of the 15 artists were dead before the age of 60 and most suffered dysfunctions in relationships, specifically shown by the high rate of divorce among these artists.

Some researchers agree that they find a common thread in the ability and/or willingness of creative people to regress into primitive thought and cross the line between rationality and irrationality. Artists, themselves, claim that they need to keep in touch with their primitive selves because it is a well-spring of inspiration.

Based on several case studies, the process of "dedifferentiation" in manic states is explained—that it is a process of regression involving the denial of loss. In the regression process, for example, the individual with bipolar illness does not lose sense of self, but refuses to choose between various aspects of the self. The regression process appears to be similar to primitive thinking and, therefore, may support the hypothesis that creativity requires the ability to cross back and forth between rational and irrational states. It seems the importance of abstractionist artists being in touch with their primitive sides to create their unique modern art may be paramount. The manic regressive state found in bipolar subjects is also similar to the Janusian thought process. It is noteworthy that most research on creativity makes a link between mental illness and the requisite cognitive processes involved in the creative process.

Janusian thinking, therefore, is required to form creative ideas. Many researchers maintain that bipolar patients, having a high tendency for Janusian thinking, are inclined to be more creative than the general population. Other research uncovered higher correlations between bipolar illness and creativity in studies that were more solidly designed. Therefore, the more rigorous and in-depth investigations support the link between the cognitive processes of bipolar patients and creativity, thereby supporting a general link between mental illness and creativity.

As remarkable the link between creativity and mental illness seems, some researchers doubt that the link is direct. When considering the importance of creative cognitive processes in creative people compared to the high incidence of depressive disorders found in them as well, these findings are puzzling. These researchers claim that because depression is debilitating, causing the sufferer to lose interest, focus, decisiveness, and energy, it seems unlikely that creativity is associated with these symptoms. Their conclusion:  depression decreases creative activity.

Due to the apparent lack of a direct causal link, the researchers hypothesize that there may be an underlying factor linking creativity and mental illness, particularly depression. They assert that that rumination is the causal link between depression and creativity. This appears to be another possible key to discovering the mental illness/creativity link.

One definition of rumination is, conscious thoughts that revolve around a common theme, with the caveat that the thoughts recur without the presence of immediate environmental demands requiring the thought. However, rumination is a process that most people use and is not necessarily negative. Rumination implies a focus on self that can be both helpful in the creative process and hurtful when rumination becomes negative. However, because creative thought requires intrinsic thought, and self-reflective rumination, being intrinsic, is often motivated by negative events, much of self-reflective rumination involves negative thought. Therefore, it appears that rumination and negativity have a reciprocal relationship, implying an indirect effect on mental health and creativity.

The Creating Cow Ruminating

(To those "not in the know", ruminating is a double-entendre for the process in which cows digest their food!)


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