Mad Genius: Schizophrenia and Creativity
What, if anything, is the link between psychosis and creativity?
Posted Sep 23, 2015
[Article revised on 27 April 2020.]
Some highly creative people have suffered from schizophrenia, including Syd Barrett, the early driving force behind the rock band Pink Floyd; John Nash, the father of game theory; and Vaslav Nijinsky, the legendary dancer and choreographer.
In 1912, Nijinsky made his debut as a choreographer with Afternoon of a Faun, set to music by Claude Debussy. In the final scene of erotic masturbation, the sculptor Auguste Rodin remarked that "nothing could be more striking than the impulse with which, at the climax, he lies face down on the secreted veil, kissing it and hugging it with passionate abandon." In 1919, Nijinsky’s mental health deteriorated to such an extent that he could no longer dance, and by the time of his death in 1950 he had spent over 30 years in the hospital.
John Nash began suffering from schizophrenia during his college years. Despite this, he persevered with his studies, and, in 1994, received the Nobel Prize in economics for "The pioneering analysis of equilibria in the theory of non-competitive games" (game theory). His life and struggle inspired the biography A Beautiful Mind, which was made into a successful Hollywood film.
The cases of Nash and Nijinsky are, however, exceptional, and many people with schizophrenia are intensely disabled by their symptoms. Even highly creative people with schizophrenia tend to be incapacitated during active phases of the illness, while being much more productive before its onset and during later phases of remission.
Many more highly creative people, while not themselves suffering from schizophrenia, have close relatives who do or did. Albert Einstein’s son suffered from schizophrenia, as did Bertrand Russell’s son and James Joyce’s daughter.
Several studies suggest that relatives of schizophrenia sufferers enjoy above average creative intelligence, and one recent family study of 300,000 people with a severe mental disorder found that individuals with bipolar disorder and healthy siblings of people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are overrepresented in creative professions.
According to one theory, both people with schizophrenia and their non-affected relatives lack lateralization of function in the brain. While this tends to handicap the former, it tends to benefit the latter, who gain in creativity from an increased use of the right hemisphere and increased communication between the right and left hemispheres. This increased inter-hemispheric communication also occurs in schizophrenia sufferers, but their cognitive processes tend to be too disorganized for them to make productive use of it.
Some healthy relatives of schizophrenia sufferers may be so close to schizophrenia on the spectrum of normality as to meet the diagnostic criteria for schizo-typal personality disorder. Many more relatives who do not meet the threshold for schizotypal disorder may nonetheless have mild schizo-typal traits, such as divergent or idiosyncratic thinking, which are linked with creativity.
In 2005, Folley and Park at Vanderbilt University conducted a pair of experiments to compare the creative thinking processes of schizophrenia sufferers, ‘schizotypes’, and normal control subjects. In the first experiment, they asked subjects to make up new functions for household objects. While the schizophrenia sufferers and normal control subjects performed similarly to one another, the schizotypes performed better than either.
In the second experiment, Folley and Park asked the subjects once again to make up new functions for household objects as well as to perform a basic control task while the activity in their pre-frontal lobes was monitored by a brain scanning technique called near-infrared optical spectroscopy. While all three groups used both hemispheres for creative tasks, the right hemispheres of schizotypes showed hugely increased activation compared with those of the schizophrenia sufferers and normal control subjects.
For Folley and Park, these results support the idea that increased use of the right hemisphere, and thus increased inter-hemispheric communication, may be related to enhanced creativity in psychosis-prone populations.
‘Psychosis’ is a general term for a mental state involving a loss of contact with reality, as manifested by delusions, hallucinations, or both. This mental state can result from schizophrenia, but also from mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder; other mental disorders such as "brief psychotic disorder"; organic disorders such as temporal lobe epilepsy, brain tumour, stroke, and dementia; drugs such as amphetamines, cocaine, cannabis, and LSD; and stressful or emotionally intense or disturbing experiences.
Psychosis can be a non-specific marker of a serious underlying disorder. But it can also represent one end of a continuum of normal human experiences. Hallucinations in particular are very common. In a survey of samples representative of the general population in the U.K., Germany, and Italy, as many as 38.7 percent of respondents reported having experienced hallucinations of one kind or another. In many cases, psychotic phenomena are nothing more than an expression of severe stress or profound emotion, often underlaid by a complex, difficult, or deep-seated life problem. In some cases, they may even be a normal or life-enhancing experience, as in, for instance, hearing the comforting voices of ancestors or guardian angels, or seeing visions that are a source of inspiration or revelation.
There can be no doubt that some people have had unusual experiences of different realities at some point in their lives, and were enriched rather than damaged or impaired by them. In a 2006 interview for the Observer, philosopher Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, revealed that he refers to his own breakdown both as "catatonic schizophrenia" and "hard enlightenment." "I have never insisted on either, in fact I switch back and forth depending on who I am talking to."
The idea that psychosis or "madness" and inspiration and revelation are closely related is old and recurring.
For instance, in Plato’s Phaedrus, which dates back to the 4th Century B.C., Socrates says:
Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings ... the men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected it with the name of the noblest of arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art ... So, according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense ... madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.
In De Tranquillitate Animi, Seneca the Younger writes that, nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtura dementiae fuit ("there is no great genius without a tincture of madness")—a sentence which he attributes to Aristotle, and which is also echoed by Cicero.
For Shakespeare, "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact."
And for Dryden, "great wits are sure to madness near allied, and thin partitions do their bounds divide."
Despite its age and pedigree, the idea of an intimate relationship between psychosis and inspiration and revelation is, today more than ever, a marginal one. In countries such as the U.S. and U.K., people with psychotic symptoms are far more likely to be stigmatized and isolated than tolerated or even celebrated. In contrast, in many traditional societies these same people may be revered as visionaries and mystics, and sought out for their superhuman insights and abilities.
Interestingly, increased use of the right hemisphere is also a feature of healthy people with strong paranormal and religious beliefs. In traditional societies, people with increased use of the right hemisphere, including, of course, people with psychosis, may project an aura of spirituality and mysticism, and, as a result, share in a special, shaman-like status.
The term "shaman" is generally used to refer to healers, medicine men, seers, sorcerers, and others, whose role within a traditional society may include physical and psychological healing, divining the weather, following totemic animals, communing with the spirits, and placating the gods.
In modern societies, the niche once occupied by the shaman came to be filled first by the priest, and then, ironically, by the psychiatrist. Indeed, the term "psychiatrist" derives from the Greek psyche (‘soul’) and iatros (‘healer’), and so literally means "healer of the soul."
Rather than being stigmatized and isolated, people with schizophrenia and schizo-typal traits may be seen as gifted or blessed, and accorded an important social role and attending high social status. That the illness has a better outcome in traditional societies may have much to do with the fact that people living in these tight-knit communities see mental disorder more as a part of life than a sign of illness or failure, and enable people with conditions that might otherwise be diagnosed as mental disorder to occupy an honorable place in their very midst.
Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of Madness and other books.
Kyaga S et al. (2011): Creativity and mental disorder: family study of 300,000 people with severe mental disorder. British Journal of Psychiatry 199:373-379.
Folley BS & Park S (2005): Verbal creativity and schizotypal personality in relation to prefrontal hemispheric laterality: a behavioural and near-infrared optical imaging study. Schizophrenia Research 80(2-3):271-82.
Ohayon MM (2000): Prevalence of hallucinations and their pathological associations in the general population. Psychiatry Research 97(2-3):153-64.
Pirsig R (2006): Zen and the art of Robert Pirsig. Interview by Tim Adams in the November 19 issue of The Observer.
Plato (1973): Phaedrus and the Seventh and Eighth Letters. Trans. Walter Hamilton. Penguin.
Seneca the Younger: De Tranquillitate Animi (On the Tranquillity of the Mind), 17.
Cicero: Tusculan Disputations I. 33. 80; also in On Divination I. 37.
Shakespeare (c.1590): A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Sc. 1.
Dryden J (1681): Absalom and Achitophel, Pt. 1, lines 163-164.
Pizzagalli D (2000): Brain electric correlates of strong belief in paranormal phenomena: intracerebral EEG source and regional Omega complexity analyses. Psychiatry Research 100(3):139-54.