On Creativity and Mental Illness: An Evaluation of Past and Present Research on the ‘Mad Genius’ Hypothesis
“No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.” ~Aristotle
“Everything we think of as great has come to us from neurotics.” ~Marcel Proust
“We of the craft are all crazy…” ~Lord Byron
Society has been fascinated by the apparent link between creativity and madness since antiquity, as Aristotle’s quote implies. If we restrict the depth of our analyses to observations of eminent artists and their creations, the line separating madness and brilliance appears thin, the “mad genius” hypothesis valid. For example, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman draws the reader into a spiral of insanity so authentic that a connection between creativity and psychopathology seems logical, if not undisputable. Stories of famous poets, painters, and novelists who have struggled with mental illnesses provide powerfully convincing support for the link, and anecdotal evidence dominates many discussions on the topic. Virginia Woolf, Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allen Poe—all of these artists were exceptional in their fields, and it is frequently reported that their commonalities extend beyond creative eminence: each one also battled debilitating mental illness.
Creative geniuses mystify us, and we are often so taken by their abilities that we cannot help but speculate as to the origin of their talents. Attributing artistic brilliance to eccentricities of the mind seems to have become common practice, but our culture’s fixation on, and romanticized view of, the “mad genius” is not without consequences. Correctly or not, a painter whose productivity suddenly increases may be rumored to be manic; a poet whose verses explore the darker side of the human psyche might be called depressed. Not only does the popular notion of the “mad genius” increase the chances that we will make premature assumptions regarding the mental health of artists, it also heightens the risk that creative individuals will be irreversibly stigmatized by such labels. What’s more, many artists themselves are convinced there’s a link between creativity and psychopathology, and these beliefs may reduce the likelihood that they will seek treatment for mental disorders, for fear that their muses will be chased away, their sources of inspiration rendered inaccessible. Here are two illustrative quotes from the book Poets on Prozac, a collection of essays about mental illness and the creative process:
“I was afraid that Prozac might stifle me, inhibit those voyages, subtly change the mental structure of my brain in a way that would keep me from the wild, intuitive jump.” ~Jesse Millner
“Which brings me to wonder about the function of psychotropic drugs and whether in some cases they actually hinder a creative person from getting in touch with his or her dark, depressive side, actually get in the way of that dormancy some call depression, which may actually be a period of important creative gestation for what comes next.” ~David Budbill
That such beliefs may be pervasive in our society provides a justifiable motivation for a more systematic evaluation of the literature. Thus, we shall ask: How is creativity defined, and could different types of creativity be associated with different psychological profiles? What does the empirical evidence support—a link between creativity and psychopathology, or a lack thereof? What is the current focus of research in this area? And–because the answer has so many implications for the creatively predisposed–how did the endorsement of the “mad genius” hypothesis become so widespread in the first place?
The latter question shall be our starting point, for we must understand the history of this intriguing debate in order to evaluate the current climate. It would be unwise to judge the quality of a house without first inspecting its foundation…
(Search “Psychopathology” in the box at the top of the page to find posts 2-4 in this series!)
Berlin, R. M. (2008). Poets on Prozac: Mental illness, treatment, and the creative process. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.