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Creativity and Mental Illness

Visit the BPhoenix Creative Writing Message Board.

Benjamin Rush, a founder of American Psychiatry and one of the signers of the U.S. Constitution, observed something interesting: "From a part of the brain preternaturally elevated, but not diseased, the mind sometimes discovers not only unusual strengths and acuteness, but certain talents it never exhibited before. Talents for eloquence, poetry, music and painting, and uncommon ingenuity in several of the mechanical arts, are often evolved in this state of madness." Many researchers have attempted to determine if there is truth in the enduring belief that genius is allied to madness. Scholars who have studied the lives of highly creative people have discovered that the number of individuals with severe psychiatric illness among them is unexpectedly high. Bipolar disorder appears to be the most common of these illnesses.

It is possible that the changes in thinking patterns that occur during manic episodes are unusually conducive to creative endeavor. Many artists and writers have speak of periods of inspiration when thought process quicken, moods lift, and new associations are generated. Loss of logical progression in thinking and increased flow of loosely connected ideas are a fundamental aspect of the hypomanic state, and studies show these same trends in the thought processes highly creative individuals.

Perhaps something inherent in manic states fosters creativity. Or could it be possible that the genetic vulnerability to mood disorders is independently accompanied by a predisposition to creativity? Researchers are still trying to answer this question.

To view or purchase work by artists who suffered from a mental illness click here.

Excerpt from Bipolar Disorder and the Creative Genius by HimaBindu K Krishna

"Though this psychopathology is not for one to wish, one interesting association with bipolar disorder is the creativity of those afflicted. This is not the normal creativity experienced by the above-average people (on the scale of creativity). This creativity is the creative genius, which is so rare, yet an inordinate percentage of the well-known creative people were/are afflicted with manic depression.

Psychiatrists, realizing a connection greater than coincidence, have performed studies all over the world in an attempt to establish a link between bipolar disorder and creativity. In the 1970s, Nancy C. Andreasen of the University of Iowa examined 30 creative writers and found 80% had experienced at least one episode of major depression, hypomania, or mania. A few years later Kay Redfield Jamison studied 47 British writers, painters, and sculptors from the Royal Academy. She found that 38% had been treated for bipolar disorder. In particular, half of the poets (the largest group with manic depression) had needed medication or hospitalization. Researchers at Harvard University set up a study to assess the degree of original thinking to perform creative tasks. They were going to rate creativity in a sample of manic-depressive patients. Their results showed that manic-depressives have a greater percentage of creativity than the controls. There have been biographical studies of earlier generations of artists and writers which show that they have 18 times the rate of suicide (as compared to the general population), 8-10 times the rate of unipolar depression, and 10-20 times the rate of bipolar depression. The additive results of these studies provide ample evidence that there is a link between bipolar disorder and creative genius. The question now is not whether or not there exists a connection between the two, but why it exists.

One common feature in mania or hypomania is the increase in unusually creative thinking and productivity. The manic factor contributes to an increased frequency and fluency of thoughts due to the cognitive difference between normalcy and mania. Manic people often speak and think in rhyme or alliteration more than non-manic people. In addition, the lifestyles of manic-depressives in their manic phase is comparable to those of creative people. Both groups function on very little sleep, restless attitudes, and they both exhibit depth and emotion beyond the norm. Biologically speaking, the manic state is physically alert. That is, it can respond quickly and intellectually with a range of changes (i.e. emotional, perceptual, behavioral). The manic perception of life is one without bounds. This allows for creativity because the person feels capable of anything. It is as if the walls, which inhibit the general population, do not exist in manic people, allowing them to become creative geniuses. They understand a part of art, music, and literature which normal people do not attempt. The manic state is in sharp contrast to the depressive phase of bipolar patients.

In their depressed phase, patients only see gloom and boundaries. They feel helpless, and out of this helplessness comes the creativity. The only way bipolar patients can survive their depressed phases, oftentimes, is to unleash their despondency through some creative work."

Read the rest of this great article here


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This Site Updated 04/09/11