Genius and Madness

There may be a link between creativity and mental disorders, but it is probably not in the way that you think. There is a widespread highly romanticized belief that madness somehow heightens creative genius among artists, writers, and musicians. And that may be because we romanticize the idea of artistic inspiration.

As with mental disorders, there is something mysterious and unexplainable about the creative process. But all significant creative leaps have two very important components—talent and technique. By far the most universal and necessary aspect of technique is dogged persistence, which is anything but romantic.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, best known for his work on flow, has spent four decades studying the creative process. He recounts the experience of sculptor Nina Holton. "Tell anybody you're a sculptor and they'll say, 'Oh, how exciting, how wonderful,'" Holton told him. Her response to such comments: "What's so wonderful?" Then she explains that being a sculptor is "like being a mason or a carpenter half the time." She finds that "they don't wish to hear that because they really only imagine the first part, the exciting part. But, as Khruschev once said, that doesn't fry pancakes, you see. That germ of an idea does not make a sculpture that stands up. So the next stage is the hard work. Can you really translate it into a piece of sculpture?"

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Even acknowledged creative geniuses find that endurance must follow intuition. Einstein's ideas were not worked out in a day. It takes a great deal of discipline, and often many bouts of trial and error, to work out an idea. Follow-through is critical to the realization of an idea. Discipline is not a hallmark of minds in the throes of emotional distress. "Despite the carefree air that many creative people effect," says Csikszentmihalyi, "most of them work late into the night and persist when less driven individuals would not."

Even having ideas can take a great deal of discipline. Robert Root-Bernstein is another long-time observer of the creative process. "If the writer doesn't sit at the computer every day," he points out. "The muse is not going to visit."

Nevertheless, some forms of emotional distress are more common among writers, artists and musicians. Serious depression strikes artists ten times more often than it does the general population. The link, however, is not creativity. Artists are more likely to be self-reflective and to ruminate, to mull things over. And that thinking style—as opposed to creativity itself—is a hallmark of depression and commonly leads to it.

Evidence that madness does nothing to heighten creative genius comes from a study done by psychologist Robert Weisberg. He studied in detail the creative output, along with the letters and medical records, of composer Robert Schumann, who was known to endure bouts of manic depression that drove him to attempt suicide.

Indeed, Schumann wrote a great deal of music during his manic intervals. But quantity is one thing and quality is another. Truly creative people are not just capable of producing novelty; they must have the ability to tell a good idea from a bad idea. Weisberg found that Schumann's compositional output indeed swelled during his manic years, but the average quality of his efforts did not change. To judge compositional caliber, Weisberg relied on an objective measure: the number of recordings available of a given work.

When mania struck, Schumann wrote more great pieces—but he also turned out more ordinary ones, too. Mania "jacks up the energy level," Weisberg points out, "but it doesn't give the person access to ideas that he or she wouldn't have had otherwise."

It's entirely possible, Weisberg notes, that the elevated rates of mental disorders among artistic geniuses comes about as a result of the creative lifestyle, which hardly provides emotional stability. Many artists struggle against poverty and public indifference in their lifetime. And if they do indeed produce works that are acclaimed, they could succumb to the overwhelming pressure to live up to their earlier successes.

What's more, says Csikszentmihalyi, the openness and sensitivity of creative people can expose them to suffering and pain. As electrical engineer Jacob Rabinow told him, "Inventors have a low threshold of pain. Things bother them." And yet, few things in life bring more satisfaction and fulfillment than the process of creation.

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