Does mental illness enhance creativity?

Here’s another of my pet peeves: The pop psychology link between creativity and mental illness. It is so ingrained that it is assumed to be true, and its proponents are often struck dumb when you question it. If you ask for evidence they refer to cultural phenomena. The obviousness of this artist’s unbalance, or that musician’s early death. They never refer to the thousands of artists who happily played croquet with their families on sunny afternoons. Or the many musicians who died of old age after long, successful careers. That’s not as interesting, is it?

From the BBC article:

Does mental illness enhance creativity? It’s widely held that it does – but what does the evidence say?

Everyone can cite famous people from Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf to Tony Hancock and Robin Williams, who were exceptionally creative and experienced mental health problems. There are so many examples that it seems obvious that there must be a link between mental illness and creativity.

In fact there is remarkably little good data on the topic.

One of the difficulties is that it isn’t very easy to define or measure creativity, so researchers often use proxies for it. For example, a study from 2011 simply classifies people by occupation assuming that everyone who is an artist, a photographer, a designer or a scientist must be creative, regardless of their exact job.

Did the supposed creative benefits of bipolar disorder make the writers more likely to choose their profession or did the symptoms mean it was harder for them to find a traditional job? It is hard to know.

So when the evidence is thin at best and according to some studies, lacking altogether, why has this idea stuck?

There could be many reasons why we find the idea so attractive. Maybe it reassures non-creative people, who can congratulate themselves that at least they’re not crazy. Maybe it serves as compensation for some people suffering with mental illness. At least they might be compensated with creativity. Maybe it’s just a really sexy idea that we love to perpetuate. It certainly makes for an easy cliche to use in books and movies.

Something to keep in mind:  Plenty of non-creative people have psychological problems, too.

Check out the BBC article for more.

Source: Does mental illness enhance creativity?


About arjaybe

Jim has fought forest fires and controlled traffic in the air and on the sea. Now he writes stories.
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