The “Tortured” Artist: Examining Creativity and Mental Illness

Timothy Ryan, a nonfiction writer who was accepted to Columbia University’s MFA program, knows the ebb and flow of bipolar disorder and how it affects the creative mind in its manic state. “I know all too well what I can accomplish when I’m in the manic stage, and how debilitating it is when it turns the other way,” says Ryan. “I’m more productive in general when I’m in the manic stage. The creativity gets folded into the rest of the energy, and often I have so many things going on that I spin until I exhaust myself. It’s a good exhaustion — as opposed to the exhaustion during the depressed stage — but there is no rhyme or reason as to which projects gets finished.”

The image of the “tortured artist” is one that is easily recognized and has been around for thousands of years, solidifying in the minds of many that in order to be truly creative one must be touched by mental affliction. The idea is so persistent that numerous books and films have been made regarding the topic, and because of popular culture, legend has now become fact.

Such artists as Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Tennessee Williams have all been labeled “tormented creators” and have fueled the idea that creativity and mental illness need to be intertwined in order to produce brilliant works of art. Aristotle expressed this phenomenon when he claimed that “No great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness.” However, with recent advances in science and psychology, a closer look is now taking place in order to solve the age-old question: Is there a link between creativity and mental illness?

A study conducted by Professor Fredrik Ullén at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Women’s and Children’s Health looked to dopamine D2 receptors in the brain and found that many healthy and highly creative individuals had a similar dopamine system as those who suffered from schizophrenia. Many studies have shown that high amounts of dopamine D2 receptors are responsible for divergent thoughts, which could possibly explain the link between creative people and mental illness. Highly creative individuals — like many who suffer from schizophrenia — are able to think in more imaginative ways and see unusual and uncommon connections. They can create and associate ideas that most of us are unable to connect. These creative connections are often seen in those who suffer from certain mental illnesses.

It’s undeniable that some of the world’s most creative and renowned artists have been viewed as being afflicted or besieged with mental illness. The great American poet Sylvia Plath suffered from depression and committed suicide when she was 30 years old. Her personal life and poetry have become iconic fixtures and are often associated with the classic and romanticized notions of a prominent creative genius stricken with madness.

A study conducted by Dr. James Kaufman, a psychologist and creative researcher at California State University, San Bernardino, looked at eminent writers and creators and found that poets—particularly female poets — were more likely to suffer from mental illness than politicians, actresses, artists and journalists. Kaufman dubbed his finding the “Sylvia Plath” effect.

“A lot of writing has healthy positive effects,” says Kaufman. “It’s very good for you emotionally and even physically. But one of the things that makes this so healthy is the presence of a narrative, and the continuous writing schedules. And poetry tends not to follow the same schedule, and tends not be as narrative-driven.” Kaufman suggests that poets might not be getting the opportunity to express their emotions in the same way as narrative writers, because poets tend not to write on a regular basis.

Dr. John Baer, a cognitive psychologist at Rutgers University, has collaborated with Kaufman in a variety of studies regarding creativity and the mind. Throughout their research, they have found that the Sylvia Plath effect can only be applied to those female poets who are acclaimed and successful. “Perhaps women tend to pay more attention to other people, and are more sensitive to other people’s ideas and evaluations,” says Baer. “But that’s speculation. We simply know that in experimental studies, women’s creativity tends to be depressed much more than men’s when they are offered extrinsic constraints like rewards or when they anticipate that their work with be evaluated. We have hypothesized that among extremely creative and successful female poets, fighting this negative effect of extrinsic motivation, which is heightened by success, might take more of a psychological toll than it does among extremely creative male poets.” After researching creative individuals, specifically eminent female poets, both Kaufman and Baer hypothesized that poetry has a tendency to attract those who suffer from mental illness. Yet, female poets seem to be more rewarded from writing poetry, and they also display more intrinsic motivation for their creativity. Kaufman and Baer theorized that many successful female poets have a more difficult time ignoring extrinsic motivations, prompting many to have higher incidences of psychological stress and mental illness.

Can a person suffering from a mental illness benefit from taking prescription medication without hindering their creativity? This is a question often considered on the topic of creativity and mental illness. Pharmaceuticals such as those helping with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia target many of the positive effects some associate with being in the creative process — delusions, hallucinations, unusual thinking, and hypomanic periods. Though it is a legitimate concern, some researchers feel that certain treatments could possibly alleviate the negative effects and even allow for more fluid and creative thoughts. “If you’re looking at clinical levels of mental illness, then people tend not to be creative when they are at their worst,” says Kaufman. “If you’re at the peak of mania or the peak of depression, you’re less likely to actually be creating really great stuff. It’s in the slighter up and downs. There are a number of studies looking at people who are on prescriptions drugs and their creativity levels. They generally find no connection. So they’re not more creative, and they’re not less creative.”

Though it’s clear that a brilliant, creative individual can exist without this correlation, the idea has created a kind of dogma with certain artists who are not mentally ill. The notion of artistic worth and the madness of the mind has become so stereotyped — and idealized — that many healthy artists associate being afflicted with being creative, thus encouraging them to mimic mental illness.

“As a society, we want to believe in this very badly,” says Kaufman. “It’s a great story: the tortured artist. And it obviously has bearings in reality, but it’s one that is easy to embrace a little too much.” When Dr. Kaufman’s study was first released, many female poets saw his theory as prophecy and immediate flocked to his words. “There is no evidence that the average poet is under any risk or any danger. There is a certain grandiosity to it,” Kaufman says. “Whatever harm the creativity–mental illness connection does, I think much more of it might be in how people question their own sanity because they’re creative.”

Common folklore would suggest that high creativity lends itself to cultivating mental illness. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t an association,” says Kaufman, “but to say either one causes the other would overstate the case.” Though the idea is enticing to believe, it should be noted that one does not create the other, nor are they mutually exclusive; making it possible that both can remain completely separate.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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