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Is There a Relationship Between Creativity and Mental Illness

Discusses the relationship between mental illness and creativity.

The idea that madness and creativity are linked goes back to antiquity, but it is not without controversy. Some schools of psychological thought consider creativity to be linked with sound mental health. Today, the prevailing view is that creative genius and some mental disorders are linked, but not necessarily directly.

Three sources of evidence have been mined to determine the relationship between mental disorders and creativity. First, historical data, especially biographies of renowned creators, have been analyzed for indications of symptoms associated with various psychopathologies. Second, psychiatric research has examined the incidence of diagnosed mental disorders and treatment in samples of contemporary creators. Third, psychometric studies—standard personality questionnaires—have compared creative and noncreative individuals.

Conclusions from the three types of studies are consistent. People who are highly creative are more likely to have certain mental disorders, especially depression, than otherwise comparable, less creative individuals. The prevalence and intensity of the symptoms varies among different domains of creativity. For people working in the creative arts, the lifetime prevalence of depression is 50 percent, compared to between 20 and 30 percent for people in business, scientists, and important social figures. Within the creative arts, writers of poetry and fiction and visual artists are most likely to suffer from depression.

Because the defining symptoms of depression include lack of interest and energy and difficulty concentrating, it is paradoxical that depression is associated with creative behavior. Indeed, depression does not appear to be the cause of creative productivity. During a depressive episode, creativity is not enhanced, and mood stabilizers have been found to increase, rather than diminish, productivity.

Instead, studies suggest that a personality trait, self-reflective rumination—conscious, recurring thoughts focused on one’s inner feelings—may be the explanation for the paradox. The tendency to ruminate has been shown to increase vulnerability to depression. Rumination has also been shown to enhance creative ability and interest. In other words, depression and creativity happen to be linked because a third factor causes both.

The role of rumination could also explain the lower prevalence of depression among scientific creators versus artistic creators. Original thinking is important in the arts and sciences. In contrast, introspection is less useful for providing ideas that could advance science than it is for providing original content for poetry and other artistic endeavors.

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