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Can You Be Both Mad and Creative?

The cliché of the mad genius has a real core of truth.

In a recent opinion article published in Frontiers in Psychology, Rex E. Jung, of the Department of Neurosurgery, University of New Mexico asks:

Can one be both “mad” (i.e., overtly psychotic) and creative? Certainly no evidence exists that creative genius (or even garden variety creativity) lurks, emerges, or is unleashed in the presence of overt psychosis (or autism for that matter, savants notwithstanding). Might these examples of “madness” reside at the extreme ends of continua that produced more adaptive levels of flexibility and order?

He illustrates his point with the diagram above, citing the diametric model (Crespi and Badcock, 2008), and answers his own question by commenting that this is “Certainly possible, and increasing evidence suggests this to be so.”

Indeed it does. A. M. Ludwig’s classic study, The Price of Greatness (Guilford Press, 1995), revealed that in a sample of over a thousand Americans who made outstanding contributions to the arts, sciences, public office, the military, business, and social activism during the twentieth century, the life-time rate of suffering from any form of mental disorder was 87% for poets, 77% for writers, 74% for those employed in the theatre, 73% for artists, 68% for musicians, and 60% for composers.

By contrast, the corresponding figure for scientists was 28%—below the background rate for the whole population, which was 32%. Overall, the findings suggest that members of those creative arts professions that rely more on objective factors such as precision, reason and logic (for example, architects, designers, journalists, essayists, and literary critics) are less prone to mental disturbances. However, those who tend to rely more on emotive expression, personal experiences, and vivid imagery as sources of inspiration (such as poets, novelists, actors, and musical entertainers) are more prone to a psychotic illness. Indeed, the same author concludes that writing poetry is the occupation most associated with the highest lifetime risk of depression, psychosis, and suicide.

There certainly is good evidence that many of the world’s leading poets have shown unmistakable signs of psychotic illness, most notably bi-polar/manic-depressive disorder. Examples from literature in English include William Blake, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Dylan Thomas, and Walt Whitman.

A study of all major British and Irish poets born between 1705 and 1805 found a strikingly high rate of mood disorders, suicide, and institutionalization within this group of writers and their families. By comparison with the rate of manic-depressive illness in the general population, these British poets were 30 times more likely to suffer from manic-depression, 10 to 20 times more likely to suffer from milder forms of manic-depressive illness, more than 5 times more likely to commit suicide, and at least 20 times more likely to have been committed to an asylum or madhouse.

Ludwig also did an analysis of biographies of individuals that had been reviewed in The New York Times Book Review between 1960 and 1990 and found much the same, along with the fact that 18% of poets included had committed suicide. Compared to people in other professions, the rate of forced psychiatric hospitalization of artists, writers, and composers was 6 to 7 times higher. Nor is this effect limited to successful, established writers: of 30 people attending the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 80% reported a mood disorder (compared to 30% in a control group), and half of those had a manic-depressive illness (four times the rate of the controls).

Nevertheless, it is important to point out that “Manic-depressive illness, unlike schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s disease, is not a dementing illness. It may on occasion result in episodes of acute psychosis and flagrant irrationality, but these bouts of madness are almost always temporary and seldom progress to chronic insanity.” (p. 96) Consequently, as in the perhaps parallel but mentalistically-opposite case of Asperger’s savants, psychotic savants with a manic-depressive cognitive configuration may be sufficiently normal most of the time to be able to realize the advantages of their extended mentalism without being too disabled by it. On the contrary,

Overall peak creativity may be enhanced, on average, in subjects showing milder and, perhaps, sub-clinical expressions of potential bipolar liability … There may be a positive compensatory advantage (…) to genes associated with great liability for bipolar disorder. The possibility that normal relatives of manic-depressives … have heightened creativity may have been overlooked because of a medical-model orientation that focused on dysfunction rather than positive characteristics of such individuals. Such a compensatory advantage among the relatives of a disorder affecting at least 1% of the population could affect a relatively large group of people. (Richards, R.L., et al., Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1988. 97: pp. 281-88.)

In other words, some features associated with the manic side of bipolar disorder, such as outgoingness, increased energy, intensified sexuality, increased risk-taking, persuasiveness, self-confidence, and heightened productivity might contribute to success in many walks of life as long as they were not taken to extremes. Indeed, even depressive episodes may contribute in view of the finding that mildly depressed people tend to be more realistic and objective than non-depressed ones. Taken together, all this might explain why three quarters of studies report a link between manic-depressive illness and the professional or upper classes across several cultures and in different historical periods.

If autistic tendencies have contributed to mathematics, science, and technology, mentalistic ones have also clearly done so were literature, art, religion, politics, and society are concerned. Indeed, to the extent that there is an important cultural dimension to mentalism reflected in social conventions and political, religious, and ethnic beliefs, values, and ideals, mentalistic savantism has clearly played a major role in history. And just as many major contributors to human scientific and technological culture have been diagnosed as autistic savants, so you could imagine that a large number of literary, artistic, religious, and political luminaries might be their hyper-mentalistic equivalents—as many poets evidently were.

(With thanks to Bernard Crespi for bringing this to my attention.)