I am constantly perplexed by the recurring tendency in western history to connect creativity with mental disability and illness. It cannot be denied that a number of well-known creative people, primarily in the arts, have been mentally ill—for example, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Robert Schumann, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath.
However, the list has been made, in various ways, questionably large. Psychiatric diagnoses of eminent people have been derived not from clinical sources but from general and popular biographies revealing apparent clay feet of creative heroes, unproven gossip and hearsay, and a field called pathography, in which both literary and psychological analysts describe correlations between artists’ psychological constitutions and pathological elements they see in subject matter or characters.
Recent studies from Sweden and Iceland purportedly proved that creativity and severe mental illness were connected. These studies used statistical correlations of large numbers of mentally ill patients with their national census self-reports of following so-called creative occupations, clubs, and courses. Defining creativity in this way includes anyone who copies photographs, enrolls in creative writing courses, or plays and listens to music. Other small statistical studies have purportedly found psychopathology in art students and people attending creative writing classes or, in another popular approach, achieving positive scores on various creativity measures. Such individuals aren’t creative in the same sense as Henri Matisse, Don DeLillo, Maya Angelou, Billy Collins, John Williams, or Steve Jobs, and the large numbers of healthy and proficient writers, artists, composers, and scientists throughout history.
Studies using tests or clinical assessments have not proven a connection between creativity and mental illness. Almost all have had methodological and conceptual inadequacies: absent or poor controls, investigator bias, and unreliable testing tools. None have demonstrated validity with respect to actual creative performance. Shared deviations from the normative—unusual and remote associations or preferences, and divergent thinking (as opposed to convergent thinking toward a single correct solution)—perfuse the criteria used.
The confused beliefs and purported findings have primarily arisen because both creativity and mental illness involve deviations, sometimes fairly extreme ones, from normative modes of thought. Symptoms of mental illness differ from normal thinking and behavior, and creativity requires special or uncommon capacities. But there are sharp differences in effects; mental illness symptoms—compulsions, obsessions, delusions, hallucinations, panic attacks, depression, and personality disorders—deviate in stereotyped and frequently banal ways, whereas creativity involves novel and rich results. A common claim is that extreme euphoria and productivity are features of both creative work and bipolar illness. With the illness, however, these features are involuntary, devoid of judgment, and distorted, whereas creative artists’ productivity is purposeful, and euphoria results almost always from exceptional accomplishment. Suffering is an intrinsic component of mental illness but, despite the traditional romantic belief, such disruption seldom contributes to creative inspiration. Suffering for creative people may often come from a mistaken lack of recognition and its consequences, neither direct cause nor effect of mental illness.
A factor in the conundrum, difficult to assess or measure, is the influence of the angst of modern times, the widespread social disruption and anxiety that became overt during the romantic period of the 19th century and continues today. This has cultivated an image of the suffering artist and favored artistic content–alienation, self-obsession, violence and sadism, extreme visual and sound imagery–seemingly connected with mental illness. Artistic expression has come to be considered therapeutic, a term that, though not always used rigorously, conjures up illness and its effects. Some mentally ill individuals have been attracted to the arts where themes and styles provide them with some experiential advantages. All mental hospitals offer art therapy and a number of discharged patients later pursue this activity.
The solution to the conundrum of mental illness in creative individuals lies, I believe, in the nature of the creative processes themselves. If the factors directly producing creations were in some way derived from, or even facilitated, by illness, there would be a necessary connection. However, from many years of objectively controlled research interviews and controlled experiments, I have identified three specific cognitive creative processes that diverge from ordinary thinking but are healthy and adaptive: janusian, sep-con articulation, and homospatial. The extensive measure of individual interview series were carried out and were systematically focused on work in progress with a large number of outstanding prizewinners in the arts and Nobel laureates in the sciences throughout Europe and the United States.
The janusian process operates in the verbal and logical sphere; the homospatial process in the spatial sphere; and, the sep-con articulation process produces integration. The janusian process consists of actively conceiving and using multiple opposites or antitheses simultaneously. The homospatial process consists of actively conceiving and using two or more discrete entities occupying the same space, a conception leading to the articulation of new identities. The process of sep-con articulation consists of actively conceiving and using concomitant separating and connecting–as with the articulate public speaker who keeps both words and ideas distinct and separate within a connected flow.
These creative processes are goal-directed, productive, and under rational governance–the hallmarks of healthy, adaptive psychological functions. Although they deviate from ordinary thinking and are difficult to use, they are not, like symptoms of mental illness, involuntary and disruptive. Those symptoms tend to block or derail creativity, whereas mental health is facilitating. When a creative person has been or becomes mentally ill, creative production must be carried out during periods of low symptom activity and anxiety.
Jackson Pollock, the father of abstract expressionism, was clinically diagnosed with bipolar illness and alcohol dependence. In the 1930s, he engaged in Jungian analytic therapy, which commonly involves the analysis of drawings. He submitted a large number, all derivative from other artists: surrealists, Mexican muralists, Picasso, and his mentor Thomas Hart Benton. None gave any evidence of his own breakthrough artistic mode. It was not until the summer of 1939, when he was improving and by his own statement devoid of moodiness and anxiety, attending parties where he was the only non-drinker, that he introduced the mode of abstract expressionist painting. He explained these artworks as both obscuring an image and expressing it at the same time, a janusian process formulation developed during his period of remission and low anxiety.
Creativity of all types is a premier form of psychological adaptation because it involves the ability to change and improve all features of the environment. Outstanding creators have strong motivation, self-affirmation, aversion to dogma, flexibility, and affinity for difference and novelty. It is better to celebrate these qualities and the cognitive creative processes than seek creative excellence in mental illness.
Featured Image: “Wheat Field with Cypresses” by Vincent van Gogh. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons