Most highly creative people are not crazy and they solve the practical problems of life much better than people who are mentally ill can. Yet, there is an overlap in sensibility between what English poet Alexander Pope called “great wits” and madness.
One key link between creativity and mental illness is the loosening of associations that is a symptom of schizophrenia and also permits creative people to make unusual connections. That shared sensibility may well reflect the stressful formative experiences that make people creative but also expose them to an increased risk of mental illness.
This raises the question of whether it is really possible to increase creativity substantially without exposing children to childhoods that make them crack up.
How to increase creativity
Possible techniques for boosting creativity range from the harmless but ineffectual to the effective but harmful.
Creativity workshops can break down inhibitions such as getting a person who has not painted since elementary school to put brush to canvas. Still, no creativity workshop is going to transform Joe Six Pack into Vincent Van Gogh.
Apart from genetics, the main cause of exceptional creativity is a challenging childhood although the child must be sufficiently sensitive for this to make a difference.
Charles Dickens is perhaps the perfect example of childhood stress and uncertainty, repeatedly losing his home and having to visit his father in debtor’s prison. Even William Shakespeare who belonged to an affluent, well-connected family, suffered from political persecution, lost relatives in politically motivated executions, and occasionally lived under cover according to historian Michael Wood’s TV documentary..
The key ingredients of childhood for creative people are uncertainty and a sense of not quite fitting in with the surrounding community. Young artists must constantly struggle to make sense of their world and that effort helps them to appreciate other people’s experiences.
Creativity and otherness
Biographically speaking, creative people have a foot in two camps. In the U.S., for example, immigrants are seven times more likely to excel in creative fields compared to individuals whose families have lived here for generations (1). Artists also tend to have a foot in either gender camp. That is why people who score high on androgyny also score highly on tests of creativity (2).
Why do immigrants have such a creative advantage? Evidently they become skilled at seeing the same event as having opposite connotations. An ethnic joke that ridicules one’s ancestry is simultaneously amusing and painful, for example. If a person associates opposites in this way, they are very good at dredging up a large number of unusual mental associations which increases artistic productivity and complexity. This is called “divergent thinking.” It is what tests of creativity measure.
If you raise a child in a comfortable home, they are likely to be intelligent, successful, and happy, but to lack creative drive (3). In Terman’s classic study of intellectually gifted children, many from affluent homes, for example, not one achieved prominence in any creative field.
If you wanted to make children unusually creative, you would have to provide an environment that jolted them out of their comfort zone, forcing them to see life differently from others
It is entirely admirable that some people can transform their difficult early experiences into works of artistic achievement that inspire others. Yet, when you realize what kind of childhood generates creativity, it is hardly something to be promoted.
1. Goertzel, V., Goertzel, M. G., & Goertzel, T. G. (2004). Cradles of eminence: Childhoods of more than 700 famous men and women. Scottsdale, AZ: Gifted Psychology Press.
2. Jonsson, P., and Carlsson, I. (2000). Androgyny and creativity. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 41, 269-274.
3. Terman, L. M., and Oden, M. H. (1959). The gifted group at mid-life, thirty-five years follow-up of the superior child. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.