Becoming Wizards and Vampires

Click the link below to read a summary of a psych study that investigated our fundamental “need to belong” by measuring the degree to which undergraduates identified with wizards and vampires after reading an excerpt from either Twilight or Harry Potter:

What do you think of the findings? Do you agree with the C.S. Lewis quote–‘We read to know we are not alone?’

Personally, I’d much rather be a witch/wizard than a vampire… 🙂

Consciousness and Problem-Solving: Some Interesting Quotes

I’m reading an article entitled “Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes” (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977), and there is a section about reports on problem-solving processes that I thought might interest my creatively disposed readers…

“There is a striking uniformity in the way creative people–artists, writers, mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers–speak about the process of production and problem solving. Ghiselin (1952) has collected into one volume a number of essays on the creative process by a variety of creative workers from Poincaré to Picasso. As Ghiselin accurately described the general conclusion of these workers, ‘Production by a process of purely conscious calculation seems never to occur’ (p. 15). Instead, creative workers describe themselves almost universally as bystanders, differing from other observers only in that they are the first to witness the fruits of a problem-solving process that is almost completely hidden from conscious view. The reports of these workers are characterized by an insistence that (a) the influential stimuli are usually completely obscure–the individual has no idea what factors prompted the solution; and (b) even the fact that the process is taking place is sometimes unknown to the individual prior to the point that a solution appears in consciousness.

Some quotations from Ghiselin’s (1952) collection will serve to illustrate both these points. The mathematician Jacques Hadamard reports that ‘on being very abruptly awakened by an external noise, a solution long searched for appeared to me at once without the slightest instant of reflection on my part…and in a quite different direction from any of those which I previously tried to follow’ (p. 15). Poincaré records that ‘the changes of travel made me forget my mathematical work. Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go some place or other. At the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry’ (p. 37). Whitehead writes of ‘the state of imaginative muddled suspense which precedes successful inductive generalization’ (Ghiselin, 1952, p. 15), and Stephen Spender describes ‘a dim
cloud of an idea which I feel must be condensed into a shower of words’ (p. 15). Henry James speaks of his deliberate consignment of an idea to the realm of the unconscious where it can be worked upon and realized: ‘I was charmed with my idea, which would take, however, much working out; and because it had so much to give, I think, must I have dropped it for the time into the deep well of unconscious cerebration: not without the hope, doubtless, that it might eventually emerge from that reservoir, as one had already known the buried treasure to come to light, with a firm iridescent surface and a notable increase of weight’ (p. 26).” (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977, p. 240)

Can anyone relate to these experiences?

Nisbett, R. E. & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84(3), 231-259.

The Association Between Creativity and Psychopathology: Part IV

Current Directions: Creativity and Schizotypy

           There has been a shift in recent years regarding the type of psychopathology at the center of the “mad genius” debate. While early studies focused on mood disorders, many current lines of research are investigating the relationship between creativity and schizotypy—a continuous, personality variable that describes proneness to psychosis (Claridge & McDonald, 2009). Nettle (2006) explains that factor analysis of traits associated with schizophrenia and schizotypal/borderline personality disorders reliably load onto four factors: Unusual Experiences (involves positive symptoms of schizophrenia such as hallucinations, magical thinking, and perceptual aberrations), Cognitive Disorganization (difficulty concentrating, moodiness), Introvertive Anhedonia (a negative symptom like the anhedonia described for schizophrenia), and Impulsive Nonconformity (violent, reckless, and self-abusive behaviors). The Oxford-Liverpool Inventory of Feelings and Experiences (O-LIFE) is one of the best-validated and most often used measures of schizotypy, and it contains 104 items relating to the traits of interest.

Nettle (2006) describes two theories pertaining to the nature of the creativity-schizotypy linkage. One suggests that the relationship is an inverted U shape; in this model, creativity first increases along with schizotypy, but then it decreases as the psychosis becomes severe (which is consistent with our discussion of mood disorders, in which debilitating depression actually stifles creativity). An alternative comes from the two-factor approach of Barron (1972, as cited in Nettle, 2006), who argued that creativity results from a combination of psychopathology and ‘ego strength’, a measure that includes resilience, self-control, and ability to cope with stress. Ego strength would therefore serve as the mediator that determines whether schizotypy turns into psychopathology or creative output. Because Schuldberg (1990, as cited in Nettle, 2006) found that positive schizotypy symptoms correlate positively with creativity while negative symptoms correlate negatively with creativity, ‘ego strength’ should increase as negative symptoms decrease. For the O-LIFE, then, creativity should show a positive association with Unusual Experiences but a negative association with Introvertive Anhedonia. To investigate this possibility, Nettle (2006) administered the O-LIFE to participants from the general population, psychiatric patients, and a group of creative individuals.

In order to examine the differences between creative domains, Nettle (2006) included mathematicians as well as poets and visual artists in his study. Mathematicians have been shown to score more highly on measures of autistic traits and convergent thinking (see Nettle, 2006, for relevant citations), which seems to be the opposite personality profile of most creative individuals, who often score highly on divergent thinking tasks. Thus, Nettle (2006) hypothesized that the mathematicians in his study might show patterns opposite to those of the artistic groups (i.e. low Unusual Experiences and possibly higher Introvertive Anhedonia). Using self-report data, participants were categorized into four groups based on level of artistic creativity (in poetry and visual art): non-participant, hobbyist, serious, and professional. All participants were also categorized as mathematicians or non-mathematicians. Finally, based on questionnaire responses, participants were also divided into four psychopathology categories: none, non-psychotic affective conditions (e.g. depression and anxiety), schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Note that psychopathology and creativity group categorizations were independent of one another, so a particular individual could be simultaneously a serious visual artist and a bipolar patient (Nettle, 2006).

Results of Nettle’s (2006) study provided some support for the two-factor model of Barron (1972). Creative groups scored as high as schizophrenic patients on Unusual Experiences and Cognitive Disorganization, but lower than controls on Introvertive Anhedonia, suggesting that “artistic groups and psychiatric patients share divergent thought, but they differ in that the latter are troubled with negative symptoms such as avolition and anhedonia, whilst the former are unusually free of these traits” (p. 886). In addition, as predicted, mathematicians scored significantly lower than controls on the positive symptom dimensions of schizotypy (Unusual Experiences and Cognitive Disorganization) as well as Impulsive Nonconformity, and there was a trend toward higher scores for mathematicians on Introvertive Anhedonia. This supports the hypothesis that mathematicians’ personality profiles have contrasting features to the artistic profile, and the findings are consistent with “Baron-Cohen’s work on systemizing as a core feature of autistic spectrum disorders” (p. 887). Nettle (2006) concludes that these results support the link between vulnerability to psychopathology and artistic creativity, but that further research is needed to understand this association within a broad range of ‘creative’ endeavors (e.g. music and drama, or involvement in the natural sciences).



Claridge, G. & McDonald, A. (2009). An investigation into the relationships between convergent and divergent thinking, schizotypy, and autistic traits. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 794-799.

Nettle, D. (2006). Schizotypy and mental health amongst poets, visual artists, and mathematicians. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 876-890.

Be Nice to Yourself

The Association Between Creativity and Psychopathology: Part III

Creativity and Mood Disorders

          The works of Andreasen, Jamison, and Ludwig focused primarily on the hypothesized link between creativity and mood disorders, and the majority of anecdotal evidence supporting a creativity-psychopathology link involved cases of major depression and bipolar disorder (schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and other mental illnesses were given much less attention in the literature). Verhaeghen, Joormann, and Khan (2005) state that “a wide range of studies using diverse methods clearly suggest a connection” between creative behavior and mood disorders, though, unsurprisingly, this proclamation is followed by citations for Andreasen (1987), Ludwig (1994; 1995), and Jamison (1993) (p. 226). While Verhaeghen and colleagues accepted these well-known studies as empirically sound, they also expressed puzzlement regarding one facet of the purported connection: even though correlation does not equal causation, implicit in the conclusions of the “Big Three” is the assumption that psychopathology leads to enhanced creativity. This seems counterintuitive given that the defining symptoms of depression—anhedonia, lack of motivation, loss of energy, inability to concentrate, etc.—are the antithesis of what creativity requires. With the help of some relevant anecdotes, the authors assert that depressive episodes actually decrease creative productivity, and therefore they hypothesize that a direct relationship between the two is unlikely. They suggest that a third variable—namely, self-reflective rumination—mediates the link between creativity and depression (Verhaeghen et al., 2005).

          The researchers predicted that self-reflective rumination would be correlated with both depressive symptomatology and creative behavior, and they used multiple measures of the creativity construct, including a self-report questionnaire on creative interests, the Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults (ATTA; Goff & Torrance, 2002), and select items from the Purdue Creativity Test (PCT; Lawshe & Harris, 1960) (as cited in Verhaeghen et al., 2005). The questionnaire assessed interest in and seriousness about various artistic and creative activities, such as painting, writing, drawing, photography, acting, etc. The ATTA presented participants with three activities. In the first of these, participants were asked to imagine what would happen if they ‘could walk on air or fly’ and to make a list of problems that this might create. In the second and third activities, participant were presented with a variety of abstract shapes and asked to use the shapes to create ‘unusual’ and ‘interesting’ pictures and to give each picture a title. The ATTA is scored on three scales: “Fluency is the number of distinct answers generated. Originality is the number of responses that do not appear on the list of common answers provided by the test manual. Elaboration is the number of details contained within the answers; the test manual provides strict scoring criteria for these” (p. 227). Finally, the PCT presented participants with abstract line drawings and asked, ‘What is this?’ The total number of responses generated in two minutes were tallied for the fluency score (Verhaeghen et al., 2005).

          Measures of depressive symptomatology included the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CES-D; Radloff, 1977, as cited in Verhaeghen et al., 2005), a self-report questionnaire in which participants reported the frequency of specific depressive symptoms within the past week, as well as a checklist of past depressive symptoms, for which participants were instructed to indicate whether they had experienced any of 10 symptoms within the past year, for a period of two weeks or longer. Self-reflective rumination was evaluated using a ‘5-item subset of nondepression-related items’ from the Ruminative Responses Scale (RRS; Nolen-Hoeksema & Morrow, 1991, as cited in Verhaeghen et al., 2005); these items were chosen to try to isolate pure rumination-as-reflection, or ‘reflectiveness,’ from rumination that is tied directly to depression (p. 228).

          As predicted, results indicated that the correlation between depression and creativity was not direct, but rather due to the link between both of these variables and self-reflective rumination. This relationship can be conceptualized in a couple of different ways: A writer with a biological diathesis for depression may spend a lot of time introspecting and ruminating, and this, in turn, may increase the risk of symptom expression. Alternatively, individuals suffering from depression are more likely to ruminate, and some of these individuals might express these feelings via creative outlets, such as writing. The authors propose a model in which depression explains some of the variance in creative behavior, but only through its relationship with rumination, and the majority of the variance in self-reflective rumination is unexplained by past depression. They theorize that self-reflective rumination itself could influence creative behavior through two pathways: motivation and ability. Reflectiveness might promote seriousness about creative endeavors, which would increase an individual’s motivation to become proficient in a given domain. Or, because self-reflectiveness increases creative fluency, it could have a direct effect on creative ability through increased production of novel/original ideas (Verhaeghen et al., 2005).  

          The authors conclude that, even though depressive and bipolar disorders appear to be “linked” to creativity, depressive symptomatology is not responsible for this link—self-reflective rumination is the mediator, and positive affect therefore must be responsible for any enhanced productivity. They suggest that depressive symptoms might influence the content of creative works, and, during periods of improved functioning in which the creative process is not hindered, this content emerges during creative production (Verhaeghen et al., 2005). This is an interesting new way to think about the nature of the potential link between mood disorders and creativity, but the underlying assumption of the study—that the correlation between mental illness and creativity has been empirically validated—must garner more evidence before too many conclusions can be drawn.

{Next up–Current Directions: Creativity and Schizotypy…}


Verhaeghen, P., Joormann, J., & Khan, R. (2005). Why we sing the blues: The relations between self-reflective rumination, mood, and creativity. Emotion, 5(2), 226-232.

For more on creativity and mood disorders:

Santosa, C. M., Strong, C. M., Nowakowska, C., Wang, P. W., Rennicke, C. M., & Ketter, T.A. (2007). Enhanced creativity in bipolar disorder patients: A controlled study. Journal of Affective Disorders, 100, 31-39.

Strong, C. M., Nowakowska, C., Santosa, C. M., Wang, P. W., Kraemer, H. C., & Ketter, T. A. (2007). Journal of Affective Disorders, 100, 41-48.

Alex the Parrot

Check out my newest book recommendation on the Psychology page of the Bookshelf! It’s a New York Times bestseller and a great read–I finished it within a day.

Alex & Me by Irene M. Pepperberg is the true story of “how a scientist and a parrot discovered a hidden world of animal intelligence–and formed a deep bond in the process” (book cover). It’s the amazing, heartwarming, and often comical story of Alex, an African Grey Parrot who challenged the definition of “bird brain,” and his caretaker, Dr. Irene Pepperberg of Brandeis University. More than three decades ago, Dr. Pepperberg entered a pet store to purchase a parrot that she could train in an ambitious–and, at the time, underappreciated–research study investigating language acquisition in birds. She left the pet store with Alex–a little bird with a big personality that would change the way scientists think about animal cognition.

Alex’s accomplishments over his lifespan exceeded even Dr. Pepperberg’s expectations. Not only did he learn object labels, the names of colors, and various types of material (e.g. paper, wood), he was also able to count and understand concepts such as “same vs. different.” What’s more, Alex demonstrated creativity–the ability to combine labels and concepts in novel ways, in the absence of any training–previously thought impossible for a creature with a brain the size of a walnut.

Alex was the most intelligent (not to mention head-strong, bossy, and wry) one-pound ball of feathers that the world has ever seen. This book is a must-read, and if you aren’t convinced yet, watch the clip below. It’s a tribute to Alex that aired on Good Morning America after his premature death at the age of 31: 

Though Alex is gone, Irene M. Pepperberg’s study of avian cognition is ongoing. To learn more about her work and the ways in which you can help fuel this groundbreaking research, visit The Alex Foundation website:

The Association Between Creativity and Psychopathology: Part II

On “Creative Mythconceptions: A Closer Look at the Evidence for the ‘Mad Genius’ Hypothesis” by Schlesinger (2009)

            Most people believe that the link between creativity and mental illness has been scientifically “proven,” but this belief is unfounded, according to Schlesinger (2009), who says that the issue is by no means settled, and may never be settled due to the difficulties of conducting research on the topic. Schlesinger (2009) critically reviews the work of the three biggest names in the field and argues that their “landmark” studies contain serious methodological flaws that have, until now, been overlooked or underemphasized by the scientific community. She states:

Many people—including too many mental health professionals and textbook writers—continue to assume that an invariable connection between great creativity and pathology has already been proven. This conviction draws its primary strength from two sources: (a) the influential claims of psychiatrists Nancy Andreasen and Arnold Ludwig and psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, and (b) the lack of equally strong, visible, and recurring professional statements to the contrary. (p. 62)

            Schlesinger (2009) condemns modern researchers for citing the seminal works of Andreasen (1987), Jamison (1989; 1993), and Ludwig (1995) without critically analyzing their methodologies, and she rather pointedly insinuates that the prominent trio is often cited by researchers who haven’t actually read the original publications. Schlesinger expresses her disappointment that many authors trumpet the words of Andreasen, Jamison, and Ludwig as if their suppositions are verified facts rather than tenuous speculations. She wryly alleges that one text had to borrow a quote from Nietzsche in order to “compensate for its lack of hard data” (p. 63). After relaying the quote—‘One must harbor chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star’—Schlesinger condenses the sentiments of her entire thesis into a single, sarcastic question: “Who needs science when we have such compelling poetry to make the case?” (p. 63).

When the “scientific” evidence of Andreasen, Jamison, and Ludwig is scrutinized, it becomes clear that Schlesinger’s critiques—blunt and facetious though they may be—deserve serious consideration. According to Schlesinger, Andreasen’s famous study began in 1972 but was not published until 1987. After fifteen years of data collection, Andreasen only managed to amass a whopping N of 30 (27 of these were male). All experimental participants were faculty members from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Andreasen herself interviewed them about their own mental health histories as well as the pathologies of their closest relatives. Andreasen’s interview was self-constructed and lacked empirical validation, and her diagnostic criteria were only available for review upon request. Participants in the non-writer control group worked in areas such as law, administration, and social work—professions that Andreasen personally believed did not require high levels of creativity (Schlesinger, 2009).

Despite the clear flaws of this design—questionable validity of measures/constructs, high risk of experimenter bias, small sample size, and low external validity, to name a few—Andreasen’s ‘stunning’ report that 80% of the writers in her study suffered from mood disorders, compared to only 30% of the non-writers, spread quickly and soon became fodder for news stories and media dramatizations (Schlesinger, 2009). While Andreasen later acknowledged a few limitations of her study, she attempted to divert further criticism by reporting that 2 of her 30 writers eventually committed suicide. In Andreasen’s words: ‘the issues of statistical significance pale before the clinical implications of this fact’ (p. 64). Schlesinger, however, seems to think that the myriad of methodological weaknesses and dearth of significant results in Andreasen’s (1987) study have remained the key areas of concern (Schlesinger, 2009).

Similar methodological criticisms apply to the works of Kay Jamison, who has also been a great champion of the link between creativity and psychopathology, specifically focusing on mood disorders. Schlesinger (2009) notes that Jamison’s (1989) study used a small, handpicked sample; there was no control group; and all conclusions were based on self-report data, which was collected during interviews by Jamison, who apparently utilized unofficial diagnostic criteria. Despite these weaknesses, Jamison’s findings were, at first glance, even more remarkable than Andreasen’s: Jamison reported that her creative participants sought treatment for affective illness at a rate 30x greater than that of the general population. However, it does not take long for Schlesinger to add, “The 50% figure for disordered poets is equally astonishing, unless you know that it represents only nine people, news that tends to disappear when the study is quoted—along with the fact that her 12.5% total for depression-medicated visual artists refers to just one person” (Schlesinger, 2009, p. 65). Clearly, sample size was as much of a problem for Jamison as it was for Andreasen.

Schlesinger was not the first to comment upon these deficiencies. In his book, Creativity and Madness: New Findings and Old Stereotypes, Albert Rothenberg (1990) states:

Two presumably objective studies by Drs. Kay Jamison and Nancy Andreason
have been consistently discussed in popular as well as professional publications as having proven a connection between affective illness—depression, mania, or both together—and creativity, despite the fact that the first had not been published or reviewed in a scientific journal until quite recently, and the other had a flawed research methodology. The need to believe in a connection between creativity and madness appears to be so strong that affirmations are welcomed and quoted rather uncritically. (p. 150)

            Rothenberg (1990) later asserts that creative eminence is in no way associated with a particular personality type or disposition; rather, he reports that, in his own research, the only trait present in creative individuals across the board was motivation. Still, Rothenberg’s (1990) criticisms did not sway popular opinion, and, four years after Jamison’s initial study, she published a book entitled, Touched with Fire: Manic Depression and the Artistic Temperament, which became, in Schlesinger’s (2009) words, the “proverbial bible” in the creativity and mental illness debate (p. 63). Of course, the majority of evidence in Jamison’s book is anecdotal, and some of the claims are simply educated guesswork. For example, Jamison includes a table entitled ‘Probable Cyclothymia, Major Depression, or Manic-Depressive Illness’ that lists the names of 166 dead writers, artists, and composers, whom Jamison personally “diagnosed.” Never mind that archive-based, retrospective diagnoses should be viewed with caution on principle alone—the lack of a bibliography completely precludes any attempt for readers to assess the validity of Jamison’s sources and diagnostic criteria. Most concerning is that the word ‘Probable’ tends to disappear whenever the list is referenced (Schlesinger, 2009), and thus Touched with Fire only added fuel to a flame that was already spreading too quickly.

Finally, Arnold Ludwig, the author of a (1995) book entitled The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy, was heavily influenced by the writings of Jamison, and his support for the link between creativity and mental illness is no less questionable, again due to methodological flaws. Ludwig read the New York Times biographies of 1,004 famous individuals in an attempt to identify psychological commonalities that might have contributed to their achievements. Yet he treated the biographies as if they were objective sources, rather than acknowledging that the biographers must have had their own personal and professional agendas at the time of composition. In addition, he lumped military, scientific, social, and political eminence in the same category as artistic eminence; his evaluations were based upon variables that were largely undefined and subjective (e.g. ‘oddness’); he contradicted himself throughout the text regarding whether or not he actually supported a link between affective disorders and creativity; and, like Jamison, he failed to include a bibliography (Schlesinger, 2009).

Given that Andreasen, Jamison, and Ludwig’s investigations all contained substantial flaws and limitations, Schlesinger concludes that “there is still no clear, convincing, scientific proof that artists do, in fact, suffer more psychological problems than any other vocational group” (p. 69). We should therefore find it troublesome that our culture’s endorsement of the “mad genius” hypothesis has been based almost exclusively on the claims of Andreasen, Jamison, and Ludwig—claims that do not hold up well under scientific scrutiny. These three figures have had an enormous influence on the rest of the field, and this reality must be acknowledged as we evaluate and interpret the findings of more recent publications.

(Search “Psychopathology” at the top of the page to find the other posts in this series!)


Schlesinger, J. (2009). Creative mythconceptions: A closer look at the evidence for the “mad genius” hypothesis. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3(2), 62-72.

Rothenberg, A. (1990). Creativity and madness: New findings and old stereotypes. Baltimore: The John’s Hopkins University Press.


Also see:

Andreasen, N. C. (1987).  Creativity and mental illness: Prevalence rates in writers and their first-degree relatives. American Journal of Psychiatry, 144, 1288-1292.

Jamison, K. R. (1989). Mood disorders and patterns of creativity in British writers and artists. Psychiatry, 52, 125-134.

Jamison, K. R. (1993). Touched with fire: Manic-depressive illness and the artistic temperament. New York: Free Press.

Ludwig, A. M. (1995). The price of greatness: Resolving the creativity and madness Controversy. New York: The Guilford Press.

The Association Between Creativity and Psychopathology: Part I

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.

“Group and Collaborative Influences on Unconscious Plagiarism”

The title of this blog post was the title of a poster I came across at a recent conference–the annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society, which was held this year in Boston, MA. The authors of the poster were Brandy Johnson, from Iowa State University, and Martin Bink, from the U.S. Army Research Institute. Because this relates to one of my previous posts, I thought I’d take a moment to share the main findings…

First, to refresh your memory, unconscious plagiarism (or cryptomnesia) “occurs when an original idea is produced by someone  who is unaware that it was previously generated by someone else at an earlier time” (Johnson & Bink). By this definition, you could even unconsciously plagiarize yourself (i.e. by coming up with an idea, forgetting about it, and later on reproducing the same idea under the impression that you’re being original).

Many studies utilize a group brainstorming paradigm to study cryptomnesia, in which groups of participants orally generate ideas or lists of items (e.g. exemplars of a category). Participants then subsequently attempt to recall their own generated responses, and finally they are asked to generate additional (completely new) responses. Unconscious plagiarism in the second phase–i.e. falsely recalling someone else’s response as your own–is believed to occur because individuals misattribute the source of their memories.

The authors of the poster in question attempted to influence participants’ source monitoring processes by manipulating the social dynamics of a group brainstorming task. In their study, four-person groups of participants were asked to generate responses for two different questions (“What are some ways in which the university might be improved?” and “How can the number of traffic accidents be reduced?”). During this Initial Generation phase, the groups were instructed to orally generate four ideas for each of the two questions. One week later, participants returned for a Final Generation phase. In this phase, participants were asked again to generate four ideas for each of the two questions, but they were explicitly instructed NOT to use any ideas that had been generated during the Initial Generation session. The dependent variable was the proportion of plagiarized ideas at Final Generation.

The primary manipulation in the study was whether participants generated ideas in their original groups or alone during Final Generation. In addition, the modality of response during Final Generation was also manipulated , so that participants either gave their responses aloud or in a written format.

The results showed an interesting interaction between these variables. For participants who completed the Final Generation phase in their original groups, those who offered ideas aloud plagiarized significantly less than those who offered their ideas in a more private, written format. This suggests that responding aloud encouraged participants to use more strict source decision criteria.

In addition, the rates of plagiarism were higher, overall, when participants completed the Final Generation phase on their own.  This supports the researchers’ hypotheses that generating ideas in a group setting contextualizes the information that comes to mind and makes source attribution easier, possibly due to the presence of additional physical and social cues. In contrast to the results described above, participants working alone also plagiarized more when responding aloud than when providing written responses–an unexpected finding that warrants further study.

The take-home message of the study: rates of unconscious plagiarism were lower when participants generated ideas aloud and in a group setting during Final Generation. The authors conclude that responding aloud makes people more careful (i.e. they use a stricter source-monitoring criterion) because they know that their responses will be heard by the entire group. When instructed to write their responses on a piece of paper that no one else can see, however, any “fear of getting caught” by the group is alleviated, and people relax their decision criteria. The rates of unconscious plagiarism rise as a result.


Johnson, B. & Bink, M. “Group and Collaborative Influences on Unconscious Plagiarism.” Poster presented at the 50th annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society in Boston, MA. (November, 2009)

Sleep On It

Have you ever been told, when confronted with a tough decision or a difficult problem to solve, to “sleep on it”? Take a moment to consider this common suggestion. Does it make sense? Or have you ever wondered why sleep would be a logical next step in such a situation?

After all, don’t you think you’d be more capable of weighing the pros and cons of your options or working through the steps of an equation if, oh, I don’t know, you actually remained conscious?

Even if the phrase sounds silly on one level, we can still generate a few possibilities as to why “sleeping on it” might be beneficial. For one, a stressed out, overtired individual will have fewer cognitive resources at his or her disposal than a relaxed, well-rested individual. Another possibility–maybe you consider yourself a “morning person,” so you want to wait until your system is functioning optimally before taxing your brain. Maybe you are in a horrible mood and you don’t think you have the willpower or the attentional capacity to take on a challenge, so you decide to wait and see if a good night’s sleep will give you a boost. Maybe you are just hoping that you will have forgotten about the problem completely by the time you wake up—and then you can live in ignorant bliss!

Regardless of the method to your madness, the overall goal remains the same: make the decision, solve the problem. So how can sleep help, and how does this relate to creativity?

In their article, “To sleep, perchance to gain creative insight?” authors Robert Stickgold and Matthew Walker state that central to the meaning of “creativity” is “the ability to take existing pieces of information and combine them in novel ways that lead to greater understanding and suggest new behaviors and responses” (p. 191). There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that there is a link between creative problem solving and sleep. For example, Dmitry Mendeleyev, who laid out the periodic table of elements, reported that the rule governing the table’s structure came to him in a dream. Loewi, a Nobel Prize winner, claimed that “he woke up with the essential idea for an experimental confirmation of his theory of chemical neurotransmission” (Wagner et al., 2004, p. 352). And I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences, though maybe on a slightly smaller scale–falling asleep unsure of how you are going to pull off a surprise party for your loved one, and then waking up with an ingenious idea. Or, maybe you spent the night unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to get the kids to all of their after-school activities, only to come up with the perfect carpooling plan first thing in the morning. 

Sleep has actually been shown to inspire “insight,” with insight being defined as “a mental restructuring that leads to a sudden gain of explicit knowledge allowing qualitatively changed behavior” (Wagner et al., 2004, p. 352). More simply put, sleep makes it more likely that you will have one of those “AHA!” moments, where you suddenly reach the solution to a problem without being able to describe exactly how you got there.

Wagner and colleagues (2004) provided evidence supporting the idea that sleep facilitates creative insight. Participants performed a cognitive task, and response speed increased gradually with practice. However, the task was designed so that it was also possible for participants to show sudden, substantial performance improvements with a burst of insight–i.e. by discovering a hidden abstract rule underlying the task demands. There were three conditions in the study, where an initial task training session was followed by 8 hours of nocturnal sleep, nocturnal wakefulness, or daytime wakefulness. Then, participants were given the cognitive task again. The researchers found that more than twice as many participants “gained insight into the hidden rule after sleep as after wakefulness, regardless of the time of day” (Wagner et al., 2004, p. 352).  But why?

In general, sleep is important for the consolidation of memories, a process that oftentimes is likened to the drying of cement. While wet, cement is still vulnerable to alterations (e.g. footprints). When dry, the surface remains smooth and unchanged, even when stepped upon. A memory, before “consolidated,” is also particularly susceptible to interference from a variety of sources. Sleep, therefore, protects this consolidation process from external interference and can result in “delayed learning without the need for further practice or task engagement” (Stickgold & Walker, 2004, p. 191). Further, in the study described above, Wagner and colleagues hypothesized that sleep might “set the stage” for insight by changing the representational structure of these memories–in other words, by changing how memories of the training session are stored in the brain (Wagner et al., 2004). Upon awakening, then, you would literally be seeing the problem in a “whole new light,” thereby increasing the chances that you will gain insight into the solution.

This is good news for me–I’m currently in the planning stages for my next experiment, and I’m hitting a few road bumps in my stimuli generation process.

I guess it’s time for a nap.



Stickgold, R., & Walker, M. (2004). To sleep, perchance to gain creative insight? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(5), 191-192.

Wagner, U., Gais, S., Haider, H., Verleger, R., & Born, J. (2004). Sleep inspires insight. Nature, 427, 352-355.

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