After reading a newspaper article about some of the current research linking depressive disorders to creativity, an artist friend of mine commented, "Well, I guess now all I have to do is get depressed and my work will improve."
Since the time of Aristotle, creativity in the arts has been linked to melancholia...but depression itself doesn't necessarily enhance creativity. Quite the opposite: most poets, artists, and composers have reported over the years that they are decidedly unable to work during episodes of severe depression. In fact, many have found their inability to create while depressed to be an impetus for ending it all. Virginia Woolf, for example, unable to write during the onset of a depressive episode, filled her pockets with stones and submerged herself in the River Ouse.
So if depression inhibits creativity, why the long-standing recognition of a connection between the two?
Here are four suggested theories: First, some artists and writers admit to engaging in their craft as a kind of auto-therapy for depression (a more healthy coping mechanism than booze but lots of artists and writers use that, too!). So depression (or the effort to avoid depression) may provide an incentive to do creative work that wards off melancholia. A second theory is that the experience of depression may provide subject matter for artistic creations: Edvard Munch's famous painting The Scream and Emily Dickinson's "There's a Certain Slant of Light" are just a couple of examples. A third theory, one held by many Romantic-era luminaries, is that one cannot truly comprehend the human condition (or convey it meaningfully in creative work) unless he or she has experienced the highest emotional highs and the lowest lows. Thus, depression provides the existential angst from which great art arises.
Finally, recent research on mood disorders and patterns of creativity suggests that it may not depression itself but recovery from depression that inspires creative work. Kay Redfield Jamison found that periods of creative productivity occur when individuals are either transitioning out of a depressive episode or are transitioning from normal mood into a manic or hypomanic episode (more on mania and manic depression in my next post). In other words, creative productivity is linked to upward changes in mood. This dovetails nicely with work done by Alice Isen's group at Cornell which found that people scored higher on creativity measures after a positive mood induction in the lab. Positive mood was induced by giving study participants a small, unexpected gift.
Okay, so maybe my artist friend doesn't need to get depressed to improve her work; maybe all she needs is an unexpected gift (a manicure? a new pair of shoes? an unexpected snuggle from her four-year-old?). The point is, perhaps an upward change in mood can mimic recovery from depression and increase creative thinking.
If you're currently suffering from creative block, try the "unexpected gift" strategy. You could either arrange for someone to surprise you with a small unexpected gift...or you could find a small, unexpected gift on your own (a flower growing in a crack in the sidewalk, a full moon rising over the trees, or the taste of a ripe strawberry - anything that inspires unexpected joy.) By keeping your senses open to unexpected pleasures, you may be able to get your creative juices flowing.
Ashby, F.G., Isen, A.M., & Turken, U. (1999). A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition. Psychological Review, 106(3), 529-550. Jamison, K. (1989). Mood disorders and patterns of creativity in British writers and artists. Psychiatry, 52: 125-134.