Madness and creativity: do we need to be crazy? article

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The mythology of the crazy artist

The idea of the mad artist seems to be supported to some extent by research, as well as the experiences of mental health challenges for many creative people. 

The terms I chose for the title – mad and crazy – have been used for much of human history to “explain” creative people, or to discount, disparage and dismiss those who are psychologically different.

Not that we may not suffer from very real emotional and mental health issues, but what do psychologists and researchers say about how these issues can relate to creative thinking?

Neuroticism not associated with creative thinking

A related term is “neurotic” – which cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman addresses in an article, along with many other topics:

“While neuroticism has been associated with a host of negative outcomes (including imposter syndrome, stress, anxiety, impulsivity, depression, and impaired physical health) and even some positive outcomes (such as threat detection and increased vigilance), creative thinking doesn’t appear to be one of its correlates.

“There’s so much we still don’t know about the creative mind, but what we do know suggests that being highly neurotic is not the magic sauce of creativity.

“But still, belief in this magic sauce persists not only in popular media, but in the research community as well.”

See much more in his rich and informative article:
The Myth of the Neurotic Creative, The Atlantic, Feb 29, 2016.

[Also see his comments below about psychosis and creative people.]

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Kristen Bell on Depression and Self Esteem

In a candid article about dealing with her depression, actor Kristen Bell recalls that in college she “felt plagued with a negative attitude and a sense that I was permanently in the shade.

“I’m normally such a bubbly, positive person, and all of a sudden I stopped feeling like myself.

“There was no logical reason for me to feel this way. I was at New York University, I was paying my bills on time, I had friends and ambition—but for some reason, there was something intangible dragging me down.

“Luckily, thanks to my mom, I knew that help was out there—and to seek it without shame.”

See longer video plus quotes by many other artists in article: Performers and Depression.

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Here is a video on this complex topic, from PBS, July 25, 2014:

“Connecting strength and vulnerability of the creative brain”

“Why have so many creative minds suffered from mental illness? Nancy Andreasen, Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa, has devoted decades of study to the physical differences in the brains of writers and other highly accomplished individuals.”

Here are some quotes from a related article: Secrets of the Creative Brain by Nancy Andreasen, M.D., in Atlantic Magazine:

“As a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who studies creativity, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many gifted and high-profile subjects over the years, but Kurt Vonnegut — dear, funny, eccentric, lovable, tormented Kurt Vonnegut — will always be one of my favorites.”

Kurt Vonnegut

She adds, “His son, Mark, was originally diagnosed with schizophrenia but may actually have bipolar disorder.

“(Mark, who is a practicing physician, recounts his experiences in two books, The Eden Express and Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, in which he reveals that many family members struggled with psychiatric problems.

“My mother, my cousins, and my sisters weren’t doing so great,” he writes. “We had eating disorders, co-dependency, outstanding warrants, drug and alcohol problems, dating and employment problems, and other ‘issues.’”)

“While mental illness clearly runs in the Vonnegut family, so, I found, does creativity…”

Andreasen refers to an earlier research project:

“For many of my subjects from that first study — all writers associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — mental illness and creativity went hand in hand. This link is not surprising.

“The archetype of the mad genius dates back to at least classical times, when Aristotle noted, ‘Those who have been eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.’

“This pattern is a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s plays, such as when Theseus, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, observes, ‘The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact.’ John Dryden made a similar point in a heroic couplet: ‘Great wits are sure to madness near allied, / And thin partitions do their bounds divide.’

“Compared with many of history’s creative luminaries, Vonnegut, who died of natural causes, got off relatively easy. Among those who ended up losing their battles with mental illness through suicide are Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, John Berryman, Hart Crane, Mark Rothko, Diane Arbus, Anne Sexton, and Arshile Gorky.”

[Photo from article Kurt Vonnegut on Reading, Boredom, Belonging, and Hate, by Maria Popova, Brain Pickings.]

Book: The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius, by Nancy C. Andreasen, MD.

“Acclaimed brain scientist Nancy Andreasen proposes that, due to enriched connections between certain areas of the brain, geniuses are able to tap into the unconscious mind in ways that most of us can’t. She also explores the link between creativity and mental illness, and she shows how all of us can enhance our creative potential through mental exercises.” [Amazon summary]

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Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So: A MemoirJust Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So: A Memoir – Mark Vonnegut MD.

“As a kid who wrote a little and painted a little and played a little music, I certainly didn’t want my mental health riding on anything as flimsy as my creative abilities but, among other things, I’ve come to see that a willingness to write, paint and play music is more than a little important to progress and just trying to keep my feet under me.”

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Video from World Science Festival: ‘Genius’ Dark Cousin‘ – “When talking about geniuses, the conversation inevitably strays towards topics of eccentricity, or even madness. One needs only to look at the lives of artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Mark Rothko, or to mathematician John Nash — whose battle with paranoid schizophrenia was made famous in the film A Beautiful Mind — as examples of the thin line between brilliance and insanity.

“But is there really anything to this idea of the “tortured genius”? Or is it just a romanticized notion exaggerated by film and literature? Philip Glass and Julie Taymor respond to striking data presented by Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist who has studied the nature of genius for decades.”

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Here is a brief video interview with Shelley Carson, Ph.D. of Harvard University, who teaches and conducts research on creativity, psychopathology, and resilience.

Also listen to my podcast interview:

Shelley Carson on enhancing our creative brain

Her book: Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life.

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But how valid is the research, and do these notions imply we are more likely to be creative if we have mental health challenges, if we’re unusually neurotic or a bit crazy?

Director Tim Burton may be acclaimed for his many films, including “Alice in Wonderland,” but has also been called ‘crazy’ (at least in part for his appearance) or at least ‘eccentric’ – perhaps a polite cover label for ‘mad.’

He has even exploited that sort of reaction, he says:

“If you want people to leave you alone then appearing to be crazy is a good thing. If you’re walking down the street talking to yourself people tend to give you a wide berth! But I’ve always been blessed with being easily ignored or avoided. I think maybe it’s because people think I look a little crazy.”

He added, “I have always been an outsider. As a kid I identified with the monsters in the old horror films, like the ‘Creature from the Blue Lagoon’ and ‘Frankenstein’.” [From post ‘Crazy’ Tim Burton,]

Photo from post Tim Burton on nurturing his unique creative vision

The Mad Hatter [played by Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s version of Alice In Wonderland]: “Have I gone mad?”

Alice Kingsley [Mia Wasikowska; she checks Hatter’s temperature]: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

The Mad Hatter: “There is a place. Like no place on Earth. A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger! Some say to survive it: You need to be as mad as a hatter. [picks up his hat] Which luckily I am.”


Psychosis and creativity

Cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., addresses this topic in a post:

“I do believe that If the mental processes associated with psychosis were evaporated entirely from this world, art would suck. But so would a lot of other things that require imagination.”

Scott Barry KaufmanHe notes that psychosis is on a continuum:

“Too much psychosis and one is at high risk of going mad. But everyone engages in psychosis-related thought any time they use their imagination.

“This type of thought activates particular regions of the brain and is especially prominent while day-dreaming and night-dreaming.”

He thinks that without the “ability to transcend immediate reality, art would lose its creativity. Far from insulting artists, I think it makes us appreciate artists even more, and their ability to show us worlds that many not exist yet, but are possible.”

He asks, “So is extreme, debilitating psychosis a prerequisite for art? Absolutely not. Severe mental illness is nothing to take lightly, and can make it very difficult to produce art.”

In a response to a comment, he explains further: “I do not think a ‘psychotic episode’ is necessary for art, but mental processes such as a reduced latent inhibition can be very useful for art. The continuum aspect is key. Extreme psychosis can lead to a psychotic episode, completely detached from reality.

“That isn’t very adaptive. But there is a sweet spot in which you still use your imagination but have a healthy foot in reality. That sweet spot is one which is heavily conducive to flow, a state that many artists (and other creative people) seek.”

From his post Is Psychosis a Prerequisite for Art?

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Woman writing on porch by Valerie Hardy

In another article, Kaufman declares that even with the academic and technical issues of many studies, there still is “a real link between creativity and a number of traits and characteristics that are associated with mental illness.

“Once we leave the narrowed confines of the clinical setting and enter the larger general population, we see that mental disorders are far from categorical. Every single healthy human being lies somewhere on every psychopathology spectrum (e.g., schizophrenia, autism, mood disorders).

“What’s more, we each show substantial fluctuations on each of these dimensions each day, and across our lifespan.”

He cautions, “While we must be careful not to romanticize mental illness (mental illness is neither sufficient nor necessary for creativity), hopefully someday we will be able to get a more accurate picture of the role of non-clinical levels of psychopathology on creative production…”

From The Real Link Between the Psychopathology Spectrum and the Creativity Spectrum, By Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific American, September 15, 2014.

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"You're only given a little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it." Robin Williams

Kaufman comments on the death of Robin Williams, that his “comedic genius was a result of many factors, including his compassion, playfulness, divergent thinking, imagination, intelligence, affective repertoire, and unique life experiences.

Robin Williams“In contrast, his suicide was strongly influenced by his mental illness.

“This romanticism of mental illness needs to stop.”

From Robin Williams’s Comedic Genius Was Not a Result of Mental Illness, but His Suicide Was, by Scott Barry Kaufman, The Creativity Post Aug 12, 2014

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Ungifted: Intelligence RedefinedScott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania – see his Facebook page.

In his book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, Dr. Kaufman writes about many topics related to creative people, and describes the painful and disruptive consequences of having been labeled as learning disabled when he was a child.

His experience was the result of several ear infections that had impeded his hearing, resulting in a central auditory processing disorder that interfered with his understanding of speech.

The book “Misdiagnosis And Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults” by James T. Webb and others, affirms that “Many of our brightest, most creative, most independent thinking children and adults are being incorrectly diagnosed as having behavioral, emotional, or mental disorders.”

Read more in post: Pathologizing and Stigmatizing: The Misdiagnosis of Gifted People.

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“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence.” Edgar Allan Poe

That quote comes from my post Our continuing fascination with creativity and madness which links to the article Creativity, the Arts, and Madness, by Maureen Neihart, Psy.D., who writes:

“The notion that  inspiration requires  regression and dipping into irrationality in order to access unconscious symbols and thought has been popular across disciplines for hundreds of years. Plato said that creativity is a “divine madness…a gift from the gods”.

She adds a quote attributed to Aristotle: “No great genius was without a mixture of insanity.”

But is that really true?

One consequence of accepting this sort of mythology is you may think you have to be ‘crazier’ than you are in order to be a ‘real artist.’

Or, that you should suffer with depression or other mental health challenges, rather than treat them and ‘lose your creative edge.’


StingAs musician Sting comments, “Do I have to be in pain to write? I thought so, as most of my contemporaries did; you had to be the struggling artist, the tortured, painful, poetic wreck.

“I tried that for a while, and to a certain extent that was successful. I was ‘The King of Pain’ after all.

“I only know that people who are getting into this archetype of the tortured poet end up really torturing themselves to death.”

From post Pain and suffering and developing creativity

Pathology and creative ability

In his PowerPoint presentation Creativity and Psychopathology [html] [PPT] creativity researcher Dean Keith Simonton, PhD notes, “Few creative individuals can be considered truly mentally ill. Indeed, outright disorder usually inhibits rather than helps creative expression. Furthermore, a large proportion of creators exhibit no symptoms, at least not to any measurable degree.”

But he also notes that “because some psychopathological symptoms correlate with several of the characteristics making up the creativity cluster, moderate amounts of these symptoms will be positively associated with creative behavior.”

He explains further that “psychopathology is not the only possible source for the creativity cluster. The environment can also nurture creative development. Although some of these developmental influences are also associated with psychopathology, others are not.”

He concludes, “Psychopathology and creativity are closely related, sharing many traits and antecedents, but they are not identical, and outright psychopathology is negatively associated with creativity.

“This fits what Dryden said about the ‘thin partition’ separating ‘great wits’ and ‘madness.’ Or, as the highly creative but not truly crazy Surrealist painter Salvador Dali once expressed the distinction: ‘The only difference between me and a madman is that I’m not mad.’”

One of Dean Keith Simonton’s books is Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity

Crazy is hard-wired. Oh, really?

In her article The Continuing Adventures of the Mad Musician and the Bipolar Genius, Dr. Judith Schlesinger covered a lot about this topic, and writes:

“Great talent always comes at a great price. To be a genius means to suffer—if not the chronic paralysis of depression, then surely the emotional whiplash of bipolar disorder. The exquisite sensitivity of creative artists is hard-wired with their pathology; moreover, their willingness to brave the treacherous rapids of the unconscious for inspiration makes them even more vulnerable to psychotic collapse.

“This is the heart of the ‘mad genius’ myth that has been integral to Western culture for centuries.

“It is also hogwash. The fact is that, despite the efforts of numerous investigators and decades of confident pronouncements by a few, there’s still no concrete, empirical proof that highly creative people are any more likely to be mood-disordered than any other group.”

I don’t agree with her opinion of “no empirical evidence” but in her article, she does raise some important criticisms of research, such as that of leading authors like psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, whom I have quoted a number of times over the years.

Here is another quote from her article:

“A careful look at the so-called “landmark” studies in the field—the work by psychiatrists Nancy Andreasen and Arnold Ludwig, and psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison—reveals gaping holes in their design, methodologies, and conclusions.”

Judith Schlesinger, PhD notes she is a “psychologist, author, educator, jazz critic, and musician…” on the site of her book The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius.

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Mental health and drug use / abuse

Carrie FisherWriter and actor Carrie Fisher at times took 30 Percodan a day, and said in an article, “Drugs made me feel more normal. They contained me.”

At age 28 she overdosed, and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “Maybe I was taking drugs to keep the monster in the box,” she said.

From my article Gifted, Talented, Addicted – which has many other examples of highly talented creative people.

Photo of Fisher from article Successful People Who’ve Struggled with Psychiatric Disorders.

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In the articles linked above, and below, there are many examples of studies linking depression, neuroticism, even psychotic cognition such as in schizophrenia, with creative people.

But linking isn’t causality – being “crazy” does not make you creative.

If you experience disruptive symptoms, it may mean you should get help, or help yourself, to gain better emotional health so you can be even more productive and creative.

My list of articles, devices and programs may be helpful:
Emotional Health Resources

Emotional Health Resources


Related posts and articles:

Creativity, the Arts, and Madness, By Maureen Neihart, Psy.D.

Creativity and madness: The Abnormal Psychology of Creativity

Our continuing fascination with creativity and madness

Creativity and madness: High ability and schizophrenia

On creativity and intelligence, By Dean Keith Simonton, PhD

Highly sensitive people: latent inhibition and creativity – Reduced latent inhibition has been associated with schizophrenia, and creativity.

Do You Need to be Crazy to be Creative?
“Creativity is a divine madness… a gift from the gods.” Plato
“People who are getting into this archetype of the tortured poet end up really torturing themselves to death.” Sting
This mythology of madness as a fuel for creativity, or an inherent part of creative minds, continues to affect how we think of artists – and ourselves as creative people.

Pain and suffering and developing creativity
“Suffering is justified as soon as it becomes the raw material of beauty.” Jean-Paul Sartre
Cheryl Arutt, Psy.D., a psychologist specializing in creative artist issues, says “Many creative people carry the belief that their pain is the locus of their creativity, and worry that they will lose their creativity if they work through their inner conflicts or let go of suffering…”

> Also see her article: Affect Regulation and the Creative Artist.

What Neuroscience Says About The Link Between Creativity And Madness, Fast Company magazine. “Behavioral and brain researchers have found a number of strong if indirect ties between an original mind and a troubled one (many summarized in a recent post by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman at his Scientific American blog).


Social Emotional Health Program for Creative, Gifted, Highly Sensitive People

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