Are Brilliance and Genius Often Associated with Disturbance?

Mental disorders are often considered to be connected to creativity and genius.

Posted Nov 05, 2019

Genius and creativity have long been connected with psychopathology in both the popular and professional mind. A wide spectrum of deviant behavior, ranging from mild eccentricity to overt psychosis, is not merely accepted but frequently expected in persons of genius, brilliance, or high-level creativity.

Anecdotes abound about the strange actions of the great, and popular literature is replete with images of mad scientists, artists, and poets. Plato earlier described poetic inspiration as a form of divine madness. Aristotle reportedly said that "no great genius was without a mixture of insanity." Shakespeare, too, had one of his characters state, "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet/Are of imagination all compact." At the beginning of this century, important psychiatrists, the most famous of whom is Cesare Lombroso, wrote extensive treatises connecting genius and creativity with insanity.

While tradition and anecdote point to a connection, there is no supporting empirical evidence. On the contrary, careful historical and epidemiological documentation of the incidence of mental illness among persons of manifest brilliance and creativity constantly shows a very high proportion of illness-free individuals throughout the course of history.

A key factor in the erroneous beliefs about a connection between creativity and mental illness is the deviation from ordinary norms of thinking or behavior manifested both by brilliant and creative persons and those with mental disorders. Creative persons especially think in out-of-the-ordinary ways to produce new and out-of-the-ordinary ideas and products.

I have carried out research interviews with more than 110 literary and art prizewinners and 45 Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry, medicine, and physiology. Other than mild personality and character disorders, and substance abuse in approximately one fifth-- no greater than the incidence in the general U.S. and European populations—there has been no serious mental illness among them. Also, I have carried out a detailed empirical investigation with a portion of the Nobel scientist group compared with control groups consisting of hospitalized mental patients and two groups of normal Yale college students identified as having high or low creative potential. By means of extensive psychological word association tests administered to all groups, the application of the factors lnvolved in the specific type of creative cognition, named janusian process, was measured--janusian process consists of actively conceiving multiple opposites and antitheses simultaneously (see earlier posts).

Experiment results were that the Nobel laureate group and the student group with creative potential both showed evidence for active conceptualization of the creative janusian process in distinct comparison with the hospitalized patients and the undergraduates with low creative potential, both of whom did not. Further, the Nobel laureate group differed sharply and significantly from all other groups in their predilection for this capacity. The psychiatric patients did not at all think in this way.

Mental illness and creative thinking with respect to the janusian process therefore appeared to be incompatible. In other studies identifying the use of other specific forms of creative cognition, the homospatial process—actively conceiving two or more discrete entities occupying the same space or spatial location, a conception leading to production of new identities—and the sep-con articulation process—actively conceiving or constructing separation and connection concomitantly to produce substantive integration (see earlier posts)—persons with varying degrees of mental illness showed neither use nor capability of producing creative results.

Rather than going hand-in-hand with brilliance and creative thinking, disabilities, eccentricities and other factors of emotional or mental illness generally interfere with creative work. In those great historical figures who have been mentally ill—and there are some—it is probable that they would have made even greater achievements if they had been illness-free. Because creative work involves out-of-the-ordinary thinking and willingness to stand alone and take risks, a good deal of anxiety is often the handmaiden of great achievement. Occasionally this becomes manifest in eccentricity and mental illness, but not in the usual case.

Creative and brilliant people do tend to be highly individualistic, and when they are successful they sometimes indulge individual preferences and characteristics because no-one wishes or dares to stop them. Also, in the glare of public prominence—from Plato and Aristotle up to the present—all the idiosyncratic details of a person's life  become well known and magnified.

By and large, however, the large number of anecdotes told about the eccentricities of great persons reflect the puzzling intellectual paradox of seeing extraordinarily high capacity and apparent defect in the same person. The psychological studies that have purportedly shown mental illness in creative subjects—writers, artists, musicians, scientists, and some business executives—invariably have little access to truly creative persons.

When correlations of mental illness and meaningful creativity exist, they are surely worthy of study and investigation. On the other hand, developing anecdotes that seem to point to feet of clay in persons of greatness tend to give all of us ordinary mortals a measure of comfort about ourselves.

References

Rothenberg, A. Flight from Wonder: An Investigation of Scientific Creativity. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Rothenberg, A. Psychopathology and creative cognition. Archives of General Psychiatry. 45:1988, 937-942.