Is Creativity Contagious?

Greetings! I’m at the 2011 New England conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and I’m looking forward to two days of keynote speakers, writing workshops, and networking. Tonight I attended the conference orientation (as well as a hilarious cabaret performance), and being surrounded by so many people who are passionate about children’s literature got me thinking–is creativity contagious? What about motivation? Inspiration? Success?

I think we all know that success isn’t contagious, or else…oops, my bad–I was just about to make an inappropriate joke about Charlie Sheen and the company he keeps. I’ll refrain.

But seriously, research has shown that smiling can be contagious, and I think most people would agree that it’s hard not to laugh when you’re surrounded by laughter, or to feel excited when the air in a room is practically humming. If mood states can be catching, I wonder if simply being in close proximity to like-minded people can help get one’s creative juices going. (I certainly hope so!)

I’ll just have to wait and see how the rest of the weekend unfolds–and although I might not be able to predict what will happen the next time my pen touches the page, one evening in the company of these fabulous authors and illustrators has already given me the itch to sit down and write. So I consider that a pretty good start. 🙂

Art & Fear

I recently started reading the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland (it will be added to the Psychology page of the Bookshelf in the near future!). Here’s the description on the back of the book:

“What is your art really about?
Where is it going?
What stands in the way of getting it there?

These are questions that matter, questions that recur at each stage of artistic development–and they are the source for this volume of wonderfully incisive commentary.

Art & Fear explores the way art gets made, the reasons it often doesn’t get made, and the nature of the difficulties that cause so many artists to give up along the way.

This is a book about what it feels like to sit in your studio or classroom, at your wheel or keyboard, easel or camera, trying to do the work you need to do. It is about committing your future to your own hands, placing Free Will above predestination, choice above chance. It is about finding your own work.”


I know my psychology colleagues would probably have a thing or two to say about the ‘Free Will’ issue, but, personally, I think that believing in Free Will is empowering for individuals, and I refuse to take the behaviorist perspective on the matter (take that, B.F. Skinner).

Regardless, I’m not reading this book to try to figure out whether my choices matter. I know they do. I’m reading this book because I know what it feels like to struggle as an artist, to doubt myself and my abilities, and to get stuck dreaming instead of writing. As Rita Mae Brown says, you should ‘never hope more than you work.’ That’s sage advice, but it’s hard to put into practice sometimes. Why is that?

I think the title is particularly intriguing–Art & Fear. For all of us creative souls, art is love, art is passion, art is self. But fear can still get in the way. Fear of what, you ask? Fear of anything–fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of ourselves and our own potential. Even when we know it’s not rational, our fear can still prevent us from being the best artists we can be.

More on these ideas later, as I continue to read. For now, I’ll leave you with the quote that starts the second chapter: “Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.” ~Stephen DeStaebler 

(Do you agree?)

To Write or To Type: That Is The Question

I recently stumbled across a thought-provoking essay entitled “The Phenomenology of Writing by Hand” by Daniel Chandler.

He proposes that there are at least two different “types” of writers–Planners and Discoverers–and that these contrasting personalities might prefer different modes of expression (i.e. writing by hand vs. by word processer). In his words, “Planners tend to think of writing primarily as a means of recording or communicating ideas which they already have clear in their minds; Discoverers tend to experience writing primarily as a way of ‘discovering’ what they want to say.” He acknowledges that every writer is a bit of both–writing would be practically impossible without some planning beforehand (you must at least have the kernel of an idea to begin), and, on the flipside, it would be rare for an author to craft a story without discovering anything new along the way.

But if you had to choose, which do you identify with most strongly?

I, myself, am a Planner–I retell a story to myself over and over in my mind before I set the first words on the page. I believe this brings authenticity to my stories–they are not written until they are real–but I do not undervalue the sparks of discovery that the writing process inevitably ignites; sometimes the best moments in my stories occur when my characters take charge and do what they want, with complete indifference for my tidy outline.

The essay goes on to explore how these two orientations might differ in terms of  values, self-revision, editing, and language precision, as well as the role that writing tools (pens vs. pencils vs. word processers) play in this process. Here’s an excerpt:

“Different tools vary in the support they offer for revision, and their use tempers the experience. Writing by hand is not limited to the pen: the pencil is in some ways a quite different medium. Henry Petrosky (1989) suggests that the pencil is ‘the ephemeral medium of thinkers, planners, drafters and engineers, the medium to be erased, revised, smudged, obliterated, lost – or inked over,’ contrasting it with ink, which ‘signifies finality.’ It is a medium supportive of design. This may begin to explain why some literary writers prefer to begin in pencil. Hemingway wrote initial drafts in pencil: ‘You have to work over what you write. If you use a pencil… it keeps it fluid longer so that you can improve it easier’ (Strickland, 1989). Many writers, of course, experience a similar fluidity with the word processor. The word processor extends the malleability of the written word. Paper ‘sets’ text, but text on disc and screen is ‘wet’ and workable. Some writers enjoy this sense of fluidity. However, some report that the ease with which they can edit encourages them to be ‘sloppier’ or less critical than they feel they are with the pen or the typewriter (where words must be pre-considered). Some feel that the word processor encourages them to do too much editing, and leads to a loss of spontaneity. And as we shall see, some simply find screen-based text too ephemeral.” (Chandler)

I don’t have the time or space to summarize the entire essay (and it’s better to get it straight from the horse’s mouth, anyway–read the full text here:, but, based on what you’ve just read, I’ll leave you with a few questions to ponder: Do you write by hand, or by word processer? Could your choice of tool affect your creativity? What are the pros and cons of each mode of expression?

It’s been a LONG time since I’ve written by hand–I like to edit as I go, and I find that typing is a much quicker way to get my words on the page–but Chandler’s intriguing essay makes me wonder just what I might have to gain from reconnecting with the physical act of writing…

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.

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.

Site’s Still Active!

“The strokes of the pen need deliberation as much as the sword needs swiftness.” 
~Julia Ward Howe


Yes, dear readers, this is why it’s been ages since my last post–I’ve been deliberating, you see.

Okay, that may be a bit of a lie. I mentioned this in one of my last posts, but let me reiterate–grad school is BUSY! I barely have time to eat, sleep, and waste time on Facebook, let alone write new blog posts. But, there is good news: I’m taking a graduate course this semester entitled “Psychopathology,” and, for my final paper, I’ve chosen to write about the “mad-genius hypothesis”–the speculated link between mental disorder and creativity (think Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Vincent van Gogh). This means I will be reading a plethora of research articles on the topic and will have some very interesting new posts for you between now and the end of the semester.

For now, check out a few related  links below. Keep in mind, however, that most of these articles are based on anecdotal, rather than empirical, evidence, and even the claims grounded in research may be controversial. So put on your skeptical glasses and click away:

Thanks for continuing to visit the site; be sure to pass the link along to friends and family who might be interested as well, and check back soon!

Handwriting Analysis

Check out the new link in The Junk Drawer for a little activity that uses graphology (the science of handwriting) to shed some light on your personality…


The Gulf Coast: You Can Help!

Oops--I guess the grumpy sea turtle swam away.