The connection between genius and mental illness is paradoxically both clearer and murkier than that between genius and high intelligence. Clearer--because so many geniuses have shown symptoms of mental illness. Murkier--because psychologists have been unable to agree on why there should be any connection between the two.

Vincent van Gogh, perhaps the most celebrated example of a genius who was mentally ill, suffered from severe depression, mutilated one of his ears in 1888, entered an asylum, and shot himself in 1890 at the age of 37 whilst painting at the height of his creative powers; indeed his greatest work dates from the last two years of his life. Almost unrecognized in Van Gogh's lifetime, his paintings were gradually accepted as works of high artistic importance and are now among the most recognized images in world art.

Van Gogh's periodic mental derangement was never in doubt, either by himself or his family and associates. Yet neither was his sanity, as proved by his extensive, detailed, and rational letters to his art-dealer brother Theo and fellow artists like Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. ‘His output of letters and pictures displays a strong internal cohesion', three researchers at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam wrote in 2010. ‘This double oeuvre cannot be dismissed as the product of a sick mind. On the contrary, it can only be seen as the legacy of a truly great intellect: the real Van Gogh.' But despite decades of forensic study, the fascinating coexistence of his mental illness and his exceptional creativity remains difficult to explain, while exerting an extraordinary grip on our contemporary imagination.

The idea of a connection has a long and lusty history. In ancient Greece, Aristotle (or his pupil Theophrastus) asked: ‘Why is it that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry, or the arts are melancholic?' As examples, Aristotle cited Homeric, Sophoclean, and mythological heroes like Ajax and Bellerophon, and historical figures such as the philosophers Empedocles, Plato, and Socrates. According to legend, Empedocles died by throwing himself into the crater of Mount Etna, seeking divine status.

Aristotle's view influenced Renaissance thinkers. In the 15th century, the Florentine Neoplatonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino saw melancholy as ‘the corporeal price, as it were, to be paid for the soul's "heroic" endeavour to traverse the rationally unbridgeable gulf separating finite and transient nature from infinite and eternal supernature', writes Noel Brann in The Debate over the Origin of Genius during the Italian Renaissance. William Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream intuited something similar. ‘The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact', says Theseus, the king. ‘One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;/ That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,/ Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt./ The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,/ Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven'. Theseus concludes: ‘Such tricks hath strong imagination,...'.

In the 19th century, at the time of the Romantic movement, the lives and works of Lord Byron and Robert Schumann--both of them self-destructive--came to epitomize a link between madness and genius, which Van Gogh then reinforced. In the 20th century, three of America's leading artistic figures, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, and Jackson Pollock, took their own lives as a result of depression-and so, in Britain, did Virginia Woolf.

Scientists as a group have suffered less from mental illness. Nonetheless, a 1990s survey by the psychiatrist Felix Post based on the biographies of 291 exceptionally creative individuals, came to the conclusion that, judged by modern diagnostic standards, Albert Einstein and Michael Faraday suffered from ‘mild' psychopathology, Charles Darwin and Louis Pasteur from ‘marked' psychopathology, and Niels Bohr and Francis Galton from ‘severe' psychopathology, along with a number of other major scientists. Darwin, for example, endured decades of unexplained illness, which seems to have been caused by his anxiety about the public reception of his theory of natural selection.

The dramatic stories told about individual geniuses tend to distort the overall picture of mental illness and creativity. Anecdotes can easily give the impression that mental instability is a sine qua non of exceptional creativity; a notion that is perhaps nourished by the average person's desire to explain away exceptionally creative achievement. For every such example, however, it is not difficult to find a counter-example of an exceptionally creative artist or scientist in a similar field who shows none of the symptoms of psychopathology.

To psychologists, the issue of productivity versus excellence in psychopathology is of compelling interest for the light it sheds on the nature of genius. While mania without doubt increases productivity, might it also sometimes improve quality too? If a creative person has a sustained burst of energy and self-confidence, it would seem reasonable that this should have a positive influence on his or her work. On the other hand, mania is likely to preclude the operation of the critical faculty essential for exceptional creativity, which edits with cool detachment what has been created passionately.

To establish a definitive connection between mental illness and creativity is impossible, at present. Psychologists and psychiatrists assess it very differently. All accept, with Shakespeare, that there is something about madness that can inform our understanding of genius--especially among poets. ‘It seems that the age-old notion that genius is related to madness was not entirely unfounded, even if some invalid explanations have been offered', writes R. Ochse in his balanced survey, Before the Gates of Excellence: The Determinants of Creative Genius. Many accept that the relationship arises from natural selection, which must surely favour creativity as an advantageous evolutionary trait. But for now, there is no agreement on the detail of where creativity's connection with madness actually lies.

About the Author

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson was a Visiting Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge during the writing of his latest book, Sudden Genius? The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs.

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