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In Search of the Mad Genius

Are highly creative people more prone to mental illness?

There is no great genius without some touch of insanity.   Seneca

Are highly creative people more prone to mental illness?   Though examples of "mad geniuses" such as Vincent van Gogh, John Forbes Nash, and Vaslav Nijinsky have been invoked as potential evidence for the genius-madness link, the actual scientific evidence is still scarce despite more than a century of research.  According to James C.  Kaufman in his recently-released book, Creativity and Mental Illness,  the long debate linking creativity and mental illness is largely based on misconceptions about both creativity and madness.   Other researchers are less willling to dismiss the "mad genius" completely however.  

According to the cognitive disinhibition model of creativity proposed by Colin Martindale and Hans Eysenck,  both creative genius and eccentricity involve the loosening of those "mental filters" that allow us to dismiss information that we consider irrelevant.    In schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness, loosened mental filters can  lead to being bombarded with off-beat thoughts and sensations that can be regarded as hallucinations or delusions.  For highly creative people on the other hand, cognitive filtering allows them to focus on their "inner world" and shutting out their day-to-day life so that they can concentrate on being creative.  

As Harvard researcher Shelley Carson pointed out in a 2011 Scientific American article,  there are numerous examples of highly creative people who are also highly eccentric as well.  Different examples of creative people with strange behaviours identified by Carson include:

"Albert Einstein picked up cigarette butts off the street to get tobacco for his pipe; Howard Hughes spent entire days on a chair in the middle of the supposedly germ-free zone of his Beverly Hills Hotel suite; the composer Robert Schumann believed that his musical compositions were dictated to him by Beethoven and other deceased luminaries from their tombs; and Charles Dickens is said to have fended off imaginary urchins with his umbrella as he walked the streets of London."   

And there have been numerous others as well.  Nicola Tesla , one of the greatest inventors of the 20th century, had a fascination with pigeons and an enormous number of other eccentric quirks that preocccupied him until the day of his death.    William Reich's obsession with orgone energy and flying saucers helped contribute to his premature death while French poet Gerard de Nerval was an odd sight as he walked his lobster down the streets of Paris.    But is being eccentric necessarily a sign of mental illness?  What about the majority of creative people who don't display this kind of eccentric behaviour?

While cognitive disinhibition can be used to explain how creativity and mental illness can be related, establishing an actual link between creativity and mental illness is harder.  Many researchers have carried out historical studies examining how often psychopathology and creativity occurred together although the methodology has often been flawed.   Even defining creativity can be difficult when working from historical records.  Some researchers talk about "big-C" creativity involving works of art created by professional artists vs. the "little-C" creativity that arises in our everyday lives.   And big-C creative people can range from the most famous artists such as Michangelo or Da Vinci to more obscure artists who are only known by art historians.   

Defining mental illness can be tricky as well since many creative artists lived in an era before psychiatric symptoms could be properly diagnosed.    Though some research studies have focused on arbitrary distinctions, such as whether the artist committed suicide,  many artists who might also have had mental problems can still be overlooked as a result.   Even the type of creative achievement can influence what kind of mental problems may develop.   Mental illness tends to be more prominent in artists than in scientists, for example.  

In a new research study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California-Davis conducted a historiographic study of 204 creative geniuses in terms of the psychopathology they displayed during their lifetime.   The purpose of the study was to examine not only whether a relationship existed between creativity and psychopathology, but also how mental problems may have shaped creativity.  Is there a linear relationship (with psychopathology rising in direct proportion to creativity) or is the relationship U-shaped (suggesting that an "optimum level" of psychopathology may be needed for creativity)? 

The creative geniuses in the study came from two previous studies looking at people who had gained fame for their creativity in the 19th and 20th centuries.   They were selected based on whether their biographies contained enough information to allow judgments relating to their creativity and possible psychopathology.  

Eminence was measured by amount of attention they received in standard reference works and separated into five categories (artists, writers, thinkers, scientists, and composers).    As for psychopathology, the biographies of the 204 creative people used in the study were compared to various criteria as described in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and rated on a continuum depending on how severe the symptoms were.   Though these ratings were subjective, independent checking verified their accuracy.   

The study results showed a wide range of psychopathology with examples of creative individuals having serious mental illness being found in all five creative categories.   There were notable variations however with scientists showing the lowest amount of psychopathology overall compared to the other four categories.  Of the five categories covered, writers showed the highest degree of psychopathology with thinkers and artists close behind.  

The overall correlation between eminence and psychopathology was almost zero with no real evidence of a U-shaped or a linear relatioship.    When broken down into separate categories however, the link between eminence and psychopathology became more interesting.   For writers and artists, there appears to be an almost linear relationship with more famous writers and artists showing higher indications of potential psychiatric problems.   For scientists and thinkers, the relationship appears more negative (higher psychopathology leading to decreased eminence).   In some categories such as composers, there seemed to be an "optimum level" of psychopathology (not too much and not too little). 

So, is there a link between genius and insanity?   The short answer, at least according to Dean Keith Simonton, is that it can depend on the genius.  For scientists, psychopathology is more likely to prevent great scientific achievements from being made.   With other creators, including artists, writers, and composers,the link between creativity and mental disorders is harder to rule out.   When all of these different categories are combined together though, the creativity-psychopathology link drops to almost zero. 

While Simonton is quick to point out that his research study is hardly the final word on the debate, he does suggest that future studies should focus on exploring the creativity-madness connection further.   Looking at specific mental disorders such as depression or schizophrenia and even specific symptoms can help researchers explore how they affect the creative process. 

While diagnosing people based solely on historical records is always going to be a problems, studying factors such as childhood trauma and substance abuse can provide better insight into how both creativity and psychopathology can change over time. 

Though the "mad genius" is more myth than reality, historical examples such as Vincent van Gogh, Robert Schumann, Camille Claudel, and Richard Dadd will always intrigue us.    Studying cases such as these may teach us much about how creativity and psychopathology can go together.

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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