Troubled Talent

Examines the possibility of mental illness among thinkers according to psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig. Mental illness among actors and writers; Findings on scientists.

By Jamie Talan, published January 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Craziness and creativity go hand in hand, or so one might think after reading a few artists' biographies. But psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig, M.D., says our easy equation of insanity and inventiveness ignores a simple fact painters, poets and playwrights haven't cornered the market in creativity.

Examining the lives of a thousand original thinkers of the 20th century, drawn from 18 professions, the University of Kentucky professor analyzed each for signs of psychological instability. Mental illness was indeed common among artsy types actors, for example, developed mental illness at a rate of 74%. But the "scientifically-minded" creative sort--architects and composers, for instance--had rates that were 10 to 20% lower. (That's still significantly higher than the rate of mental illness among the general population, which is about 35%.)

As for writers, Ludwig received striking results when he separated fiction and nonfiction authors: journalists and the like had a lifetime mental illness rate of 47%, while for novelists it was 59%. Poets were most often afflicted, at 77%.

Among scientists, Ludwig found that social scientists like psychologists have a 51% lifetime risk--much higher than that of natural scientists such as biologists and chemists, who average a 28% risk. "The question of whether madness is important to creativity," Ludwig concludes, "depends on what type of creative expression you're talking about."

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