Essay: Creativity and Mental illness

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  • Subject area(s): Psychology essays
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  • Published on: July 20, 2019
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Creativity is a personality construct, or characteristic that involves originality and imagination in the creation of new ideas, as well as invention. However, this idea of creativity has not always been what we know today. It is a concept that has evolved, as with most things, over time. Through the years, it has become valuable due to its influence in business, management (Proctor, 1991), and in the attainment of economic success in many countries around the world (Davies, 2002). Thus we are able to see its importance in the continuous progress of society. However, given creativity’s role in our society, there seems to be a phenomenon(?) whereby creativity has been linked to mental illness. As Aristotle once said, “No great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness.”. This is especially evident in creative people such as musicians, artists and the like, as creativity is often linked to genius, or intelligence. This paper will explore the reasons how and why mental illness has come to be linked to creativity.


History of Mental illness and Creativity

A possible link between mental illness and creative output seem to have existed throughout history. As far back as the 4th century B.C., the connection between “divine” inspiration and altered mental state had already been made, prompting Plato to expound in the dialogue the Phaedrus: “Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings… Madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.”, stating how, talent and genius that is not found in ‘normal’ people, but is due to certain anomalies in the brain. The idea of an association between creativity and mental illnesses has often been derived from anecdotes or the biographies of creative people, that shows their struggles with mental illnesses. (Beveridge and Yorston, 1999).

Indeed, a review of popular artwork and artists have shown how many of them could have been mentally troubled. Edward Munch, who painted “The Scream” in 1893, once said that “Sickness, insanity and death were the angels that surrounded my cradle and have followed me throughout my life”, showing how troubled his life was. Similarly, the famous painter Van Gogh has been posthumously diagnosed with numerous disorders such as manic depression, a condition commonly found in many creative people. Not only that, countless of famous writers have also died by suicide, such as Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, just to cite a few. Such cases seem to also support the theory that people possessing the creativity trait are also likely to suffer from mental disorders.

Associated Disorders

Studies in the past few decades have examined and support links between creativity and mental illness. A study by Andreasen (1997) on creative writers found the rate of affective disorders (such as manic depression) strikingly high. Rates of alcoholism were also higher . A study by Verhaeghen and colleagues (2005) similarly found that past depressive symptoms predicted higher divergent thinking scores and more creative interests in participants. Interestingly, they found that self-reflective rumination mediated these effects, suggesting that it may be self-rumination that lead to the development of depressive symptoms in creative people. (Verhaeghen, Joorman, & Khan, 2005).

Creativity has also found to be linked to anxiety. Rubinstein (2008) reported that patients diagnosed with anxiety, depression, or personality disorders had higher divergent-thinking fluency scores than schizophrenic patients.

Much evidence have supported the association between disorders with psychotic tendencies and creativity. Many studies have investigated a relationship between creativity and the schizophrenia spectrum (e.g., Weinstein and Graves, 2002; Fisher et al., 2004; Folley and Park, 2005). Batey and Furnham (2008) found a positive correlation between the unusual experiences and Impulsive Nonconformity dimensions of a schizotypy inventory and creativity, suggesting that these two dimensions may be the link between schizophrenia and creativity. Studies have also found higher creativity scores in patients diagnosed with bipolar disorders (e.g., Soeiro-de-Souza et al., 2011).

However, the link between psychopathology and creativity may not be as clear as previously thought. Researchers have been hesitant to establish the impact of creativity on mental illness as a proven fact, in part due to mixed results from studies studying the relationship. Silvia and Kimbrel (2009) studied the relationship between mental illness and creativity, but found that measures of anxiety, depression as well as social anxiety predicted little variance in creativity, regardless of whether creativity was viewed as divergent thinking, creative self-concepts, everyday creative behaviors, or public creative achievements.Rothenberg (1990) conducted interviews with people with creative traits, and found that there is no specific personality type that is associated with outstanding creativity. Creative people did not, contrary to popular stereotypes, display any form of extraordinary egosticism, eccentricism or rebelliousness.

Specific cognitive mechanisms

It is possible that there are certain cognitive processes and mechanisms are shared by creativity and certain mental illnesses. A number of cognitive processes involved in creative thinking have been identified by Abraham and Windmann (2007), including conceptual expansion, which is the ability to broaden the framework of already established conceptual structures , creative imagery, which is the ability to mentally visualise ideas, overcoming knowledge constraints, which describes the ability to overcome the constraints of already possessed knowledge, and insight, which is the often sudden occurance of a solution during the problem solving process.

Semantic associations

It has been suggested that an important aspect of creativity involves understanding associative pathways about semantic information and how it is related to certain contexts (Boden, 2013). Semantic processing allows us to widen our conceptual structures to involve and allow the formation of unusual and novel associations, and is thus heavily involved in conceptual expansion and overcoming knowledge constraints. However, semantic processing has also been found to be related to schizotypy. Making semantic associations between words or concepts, which is likely to be associated with verbal creativity, is related to positive schizotypy (Fisher et al., 2013), This shows how people high in the creative trait is likely to have increased semantic processing abilities, which could also make them at risk of schizophrenia.

Divergent thinking
Divergent thinking is an aspect of creative thinking, involving the creation of different, fluent, original ideas. It has always been considered fundamental to creativity(Kaufman and Sternberg, 2010). However, researchers have found that it could be a possible link between creativity and schizotypy. Eysenck’s (1993) noted that while the thought disorders and dysfunctions in schizophrenia may not be exactly identical to divergent thinking, there are some similarities between schizophrenia and creativity. One of that is the tendency to engage in over-inclusive thinking, such as delusions. Thus, he theorizes that psychoticism, a personality trait involving cold, un-empathic, aggressive, and impulsive behavior, is mediated by high divergent thinking. Certain psychologists have states that divergent thought in people with mental illnesses could in fact lead to greater creative capabilities. Associate professor of psychiatry, Gail Saltz, argued that the “wavering attention and day-dreamy state” of ADHD, for example, is also a source of creative thought.

Motivation, especially that of intrinsic motivation, is found to be particularly high in creative people such as writers and musicians. Intrinsic motivation is often associated with creative thought and behavior (Ryan & Deci 2000). For example, Prabhu and colleagues (2008) provide an interesting qualification to the relationship between openness and creativity: It is mediated by intrinsic motivation. Lack of motivation is detrimental for personal success, and extensive research have outlined the importance of motivation in the quality of creative products (Amabile, 1985). However, studies have shown that motivation could also be a shared characteristic between creativity and mental illness. Spielberger et al’s (1963) findings on bipolar patients show that they had extreme appraisals of personal success, and more than 93% of those with history of manic symptoms agreed with the statement that they “nearly always strive hard for personal achievement”. This suggests that people with creative traits, as well as bipolar and manic symptoms, could share a common trait of perfectionism and high motivation.

• ‘Loose semantic processing of information in the right hemisphere’ links schizotypical personality disorder and creativity.
• Latent inhibition and primordial thinking

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