Portrait of the Artist as a Manic-Depressive

Reports that composer Robert Schumann has written masterpieces during bouts of manic-depression. Link of Schumann's productive periods with his manic intervals; Explanation of the high rates of mental disorders among artistic geniuses.

By PT Staff, published July 1, 1995 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

The 19th century composer Robert Schumann created scores of musicalmasterpieces, all the while enduring bouts of manic-depression that repeatedly drove him to attempt suicide. Some researchers argue that Schumann's mental illness—particularly his manic periods—enhanced his creative powers.

But does madness really heighten creative genius in artists, musicians, and writers? Not at all, says Temple University psychologist Robert Weisberg, Ph.D.

From a bountiful paper trail of letters and medical records, Schumannologists have indeed linked the composer's most productive periods with his manic intervals. One dramatic example: The composer completed four works in 1839, when he was depressed—and 25 the following year, a period of mania.

But quantity is one thing and quality's another. Weisberg's twist was to rate the caliber of the music Schumann composed while in each mental state. For it is excellence, he points out, that is the hallmark of genius. As a measure of compositional caliber, he counted how many recordings were available of a given work.

Weisberg's finding: While the quantity of Schumann's compositions swelled during his manic years, the average quality of his efforts didn't change. When mania struck, Schumann wrote more great pieces--but he also churned out more ordinary ones.

Mania "jacks up the energy level," explains Weisberg, "but it doesn't give the person access to ideas that he or she would not have had otherwise."

If madness doesn't enhance creativity, how to explain the high rates of mental disorders among artistic geniuses? One possibility is that we've had the equation backwards: Perhaps artistic genius contributes to mental illness, contends Weisberg. A creative lifestyle hardly provides emotional stability, and many artists struggle against poverty, public indifference, and—if they finally manage to create great works—the overwhelming pressure to live up to prior successes.

What's more, creative types often romanticize mental illness. For many artists "it's almost like a badge that makes your work more valid," notes Weisberg. That makes them more attuned to symptoms of mental illness, and boosts the likelihood that researchers will detect it in artistes.