The mad genius fact or fiction?

By Farah Tiwana
Fri, 07, 18

The ‘mad genius’, or the ‘tortured artist’, is an image strongly embedded in the global psyche....


The ‘mad genius’, or the ‘tortured artist’, is an image strongly embedded in the global psyche. References to it can be found in art, film and history. Picasso, the abstract artist, is known to have stayed in an asylum while struggling with mental illness; Edvard Munch, the painter of the ‘Scream’, is known to have suffered depression; writers such as Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath suffered from bipolar disorder; F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were dependent on alcohol; Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln are known to have been depressed - and perhaps most commonly known, due to the semi-biographical film A Beautiful Mind, the mathematician John Nash was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Many people believe that there is a link between having a mental illness and being creative. It is assumed that mental illnesses allow one a deeper sensitivity and insight into life, art and meaning. Some people even go so far as to believe that being creative can put one at risk of being mentally ill! This is sometimes called ‘The Plath Effect’, named after the American writer Sylvia Plath.

So how true is that?

In the first place, it is questionable whether some of the famous people said to have been mentally ill were actually so. Often diagnoses applied to famous personages have been the result of ‘retrospective diagnosis’. This means that based on popular biographies, rumours, hearsay or anecdotes, current day mental health professionals have suggested diagnoses for people whom they have never actually assessed in person - today, some people even suggest that Cleopatra may have had ‘narcissistic personality disorder’. Clearly, this means that often such labels are unreliable and quite possibly inaccurate.

In other instances, where there is an official record of mental illness, the link with creativity is poor. For example, the English writer Virginia Woolf received treatment for bipolar disorder, a mood disorder where a person has episodes of very low mood (depression) and episodes of very high or irritable mood (mania). Woolf was a prolific writer, but whenever she experienced a bout of illness or a relapse, her creativity was impaired rather than encouraged. She found it very difficult, near impossible, to write and finish editing her works and she often complained to friends and family, in letters, that her illness was interfering with her creative processes. Similarly, Scott Fitzgerald’s alcoholism in later years often made it hard for him to write and work.

Sylvia Plath

It is known that psychiatric disorders such as depression affect one’s thinking processes. When people are depressed, they can often find it hard to concentrate on anything; or they might feel no motivation to do anything. When people are anxious, they might find their thoughts too preoccupied with worries to focus. When people use drugs, they might develop memory problems, loss of interest in things, and poor concentration. When people develop psychotic symptoms, meaning they either have unusual false beliefs (delusions) or they hear voices/see things that are not there (hallucinations), they can have problems maintaining a normal flow of thoughts.

Nonetheless, there have been research findings suggesting a link between creativity and mental illness. The American psychiatrist, Nancy Andreasen conducted a study to check whether there was an increased occurrence of mental illness in writers and their relatives. Her research found that 43 percent of writers had depression or mood disorders. Similarly, writers also had higher rates of alcoholism than non-writers. Another research study from 2013 by Simon Kyaga, a Swedish researcher, concluded writers had a higher likelihood of suffering from schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder and drug addiction as compared to other professionals.

But can we take these results at face value? These researches have also been criticised for various reasons. Such findings can be the result of a phenomenon known as ‘conformation bias’, meaning that researchers (consciously or unconsciously) set out to prove a belief or an idea rather than testing whether or not it is objectively true. Additionally, there are many writers who are mentally healthy and do not suffer from psychiatric disorders. It is possible that often excessive attention is given to cases which prove the stereotype, rather than to cases which disprove it.

As noted by Albert Rothenberg, a writer for Psychology Today, “The problem is that the criteria for being creative is never anything very creative. Belonging to an artistic society, or working in art or literature, does not prove a person is creative. But the fact is that many people who have mental illness do try to work in jobs that have to do with art and literature, not because they are good at it, but because they’re attracted to it. And that can skew the data.”

In line with this, research has shown that in fact creativity is strongly associated with positive, happy mood, rather than with mood disorders. People are most creative and productive when they are experiencing positive emotions.

Other explanations have looked at thinking process similarities in mental illnesses and creative thinking.

Virginia Woolf

Creative persons are less likely to ignore unimportant, familiar things in their environment; things that others would normally filter out of their awareness. This ability can give them greater creative potential. At the same time, this ability is also associated with certain mental illnesses.

Furthermore, creative persons show a trait called ‘divergent’ thinking. This means that they are able to make new associations between concepts faster and more often than others. But this is also seen in schizophrenic disorders.

Weighing up the evidence, what can the answer be? Well, there are numerous explanations. There is the continuum theory, which considers mental illness and creativity as two extremes of the same spectrum, due to the aforementioned thinking pattern commonalities.

Then, on the one hand, there is the effect of the stereotype of the ‘tortured artist’ that encourages creative individuals to behave and act in a particular way. It suggests implicitly that to be creative means to be “angsty”. It also encourages people with mental illnesses to be drawn to creative professions. On the other hand, creative fields might allow people to express themselves more, and to experience an outlet of emotions, thus encouraging people with emotional distress to be drawn to creative fields.

Lastly, it is well-known that people who have worked in the artistic and creative professions, historically, have experienced difficulties such as poverty (Charles Dickens), social isolation (Mary Shelley), high levels of stress, psychological and other traumas and abuse - all of which are known to affect one’s mental health. It is far more likely that there is a purely incidental correlation between mental illness and creativity than any real link.

The next time you see this stereotype on television or film or promoted by someone in conversation, you can weigh up the arguments. For the aspiring writers out there, don’t be put off by stereotypes - there is far more evidence that writers have good mental health and successful lives too, just look at J.K. Rowling!