Today, my bath-time ponderings were whether there is a connection between mental illness and creativity. I was actually reading a print-out of a book’s chapter abstracts for work and they came from a book about publicly-funded asylums in 1880s America which became unexpected centres of cultural activity. It was a book that explores the creative lives of the patients living in those asylums. One of the abstracts mentioned the ‘outsider art’ movement in terms of being part of the vogue for glamorizing mental illness and the effects mental illness has on the creativity of the mind, which got me pondering whether a troubled mind leads to more creative art or in fact the opposite could be true; a more balanced and positive mind is more open to creative thought and the desire and willingness to put that thought on paper (or whatever medium).
Of course this idea doesn’t just apply to art but could also be applied to literature and other creative fields. Perhaps both are true, and it is during those times when a creative person is feeling at neither end of the spectrum that they suffer from ‘artist’s block’.
The term ‘mental illness’ doesn’t just cover depression, of course, and the internet tells me that some research has been carried out on suffers of Bipolar II Disorder who may experience periods of heightened creativity during the somewhat milder manic phases of the illness (when compared with Bipolar I Disorder where the mania is more disabling). Apparently, creativity and psychopathology have been shown to share some common traits, such as a tendency for ‘blue sky thinking’, brain storming ideas, speeding up of thoughts and a heightened perception of visual, auditory and somatic stimuli. It is believed that certain very famous creative figures had bipolar disorder or mood disorder, mostly writers and musicians but also some artists.
I also found out about a survey carried out by the Open University in 2005 on artists, poets, random people and suffers of schizophrenia. On analysing 425 responses, the psychologists found that artists and schizophrenics scored equally high on ‘unusual cognition’, a trait which gives rise to a greater tendency to feel in between reality and a dream state, or to feel overwhelmed by one’s own thoughts.
So arty people themselves might not be suffers of mental illness, particularly in this case schizophrenia, it might be that they are just able to direct their creativity, and maybe they carry genes that predispose towards mental illness.
Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creativity_and_mental_illness [last accessed 13 October 2012]
Ian Sample ‘Mental Illness link to art and sex’ in The Guardian Newspaper online (30 November 2005), http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2005/nov/30/psychology.highereducation [last accessed 13 October 2012]