The Superhuman Mind

Cases of extraordinary mental ability

Positives of Depression on Artistic Expression

Poor memory and deep sadness, yet superhuman creativity.

"Artistic temperament sometimes seems a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling," said Madeleine L'Engle. "Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one," said Stella Adler. "The urge to destroy is also a creative urge," said Pablo Picasso. “Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity,” said T.S. Eliot. “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star,” said Friedrich Nietzsche.

Anecdotal evidence has it that mood disorders, including depression and anxiety, can inspire artistic talent. It's not at all clear why this should be so. According to Washington University psychiatry professor Yvette Sheline, depression coincides with a smaller hippocampus, a brain region crucial for memory and learning. Sheline and colleagues scanned the brains of 48 women with a history of clinical depression. They found that the size of the hippocampus was inversely related to the number of bouts of depression. Other scientists have found a correlation between depression and decreased activity in brain areas associated with excitability, reaction time, reward and memory.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

A history of clinical depression is also significantly correlated with increased plaques and tangles in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, says Mount Sinai School of Medicine researcher Michael Rapp, M.D. Rapp and colleagues looked at the brains of 44 Alzheimer's patients with a history of depression and 51 without a history of the illness. They found that the hippocampi of patients with a history of depression had a greater build-up of the protein plaques that cause Alzheimer's. The detrimental effects were even worse in patients who suffered from depression at the time they were diagnosed with Alzheimer's, the scientists reported.

Despite these adverse effects of depression it seems that some people cannot engage in artistic activities without bouts of depression. The list of great poets and writers who committed suicides as a result of major depressive disorder is long. American poet Anne Sexton often wrote about her suicidal tendencies and long battle against depression. On October 4, 1974, after having had lunch with a friend, Sexton returned home, put on her mother's old fur coat, removed all her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka and locked herself in her garage with the car on.

British writer Virginia Woolf suffered from extreme depression around the time of the onset of World War II. She filled a coat with heavy stones, walked into River Ouse and drowned herself. In her suicide note she wrote:

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.

In his book Van Gogh Blues Eric Maisel proclaims that virtually one hundred percent of creative people suffer from bouts of depression. What might explain this intimate connection between depression and artistic expression? Several reasons have been reported anecdotally. Some say that—like many therapists—artists and writers engage in their special line of work as a kind of self-therapy for depression. Others claim that the experience of depression provides a valuable subject matter for artistic creations, as witnessed by Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and Emily Dickinson’s poem “There’s a Certain Slant of Light." Finally some claim that artists cannot truly understand and artistically express the human condition unless they have experienced "the lowest of emotional lows."

The real answer may be a combination of these factors. Researchers at Tufts University found that depressed people have difficulties processing their emotions in the same way as people who don’t suffer from depression. The difficulties owe to hyperactivity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), a brain region that regulates emotional outputs generated from brain areas that process fear. Interestingly, as work by University of Southern California professors Antonio and Hanna Damasio and colleagues has shown, vmPFC is also comprimised in people with psychopathic tendencies, though vmPFC defects in these patients correlate with less activity in this area, not more.

A likely answer to the question of what makes depressed people more artistically apt than others, then, may be a combination of those factors. First, depressed people have more negative emotions to express in artistic ways than people who are not depressed; and second, owing to their difficulties processing affect, artistic expression is one of the only ways for them to deal with these emotions.

Berit Brogaard, D.M.Sci., Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy and the Director of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research at the University of Miami.

more...

Subscribe to The Superhuman Mind

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.