Creativity and Mental Illness
Some time ago, a member of one of my online writing groups shared an infographic to the group feed that stated, “Writers are 121% more likely to suffer from mental illness than the general population.”
Folks with an even temper and logical mind would look at that, shrug, and move on with the confidence that this is an infographic of no real consequence from a highly untrustworthy source looking for higher interaction rates on social media.
I take a serious interest in the mental health stigma surrounding creative people. During college, I saw some good friends in my writing program give in to serious additions and self-destructive behavior while excusing themselves saying all the great minds have their vices and flaws. Essentially – to be a good artist, you must be unwell to stand out.
I do take issue with this, and I wanted to know where this horrendous lie of a statistic came from, who did it, and what did the experts discover about the real connection (if there even was one).
Turns out, this statistic came from the work of Swedish physician Simon Kyaga. He and his team conducted a 40 year study, centered on discovering links between severe mental illness and creativity. These results were widely discussed online when the team published their findings.
The stat in the infographic, however, is taken out of context. The study itself focused on a registry of diagnosed psychiatric patients and their families. This was not a clean sampling of an entire population. And, within that population, this statistic was for bipolar disorder only, not mental illness as a whole.
Also, there’s no clear cause and effect relationship. It could be these people turned to writing as a way of coping with their condition, or writing was (and is) a particularly attractive way of communicating when in distress.
The Kyaga study produced two papers published in 2011 and 2012. These are only two of several on the subject of creativity and its connection to both genius and mental illness.
I’ve included links to several papers on the subject in the resources portion of this post, but be aware most scholarly articles are available to review only through purchase of a subscription to one of dozens of research databases. It’s ridiculous what a layperson has to go through to read these research papers for themselves. (I can gripe about that comfortably for ages, but that’s for another post.)
The language is technical and the data sometimes obscure for those of us (including myself) who are not professionals or formal students in the fields of neuroscience and psychology. Summed up, with the help of a post on the Scientific American blog, Beautiful Minds, there is a traceable link between mental illness and creative people.
It is important to note, however, it is not a direct link.
The Kyaga study covered those diagnosed with mental illness and their families. The patients, as a population, did not show high creativity (as opposed to the population at large). Their siblings and near relatives in the same cohort, however, had a higher percentage of creatively expressive individuals. (Note, the portion of the study with bipolar disorder was the exception in this case, though the measurement was still on the small side.)
Since this was so well described in the Scientific American post, I will quote to point out a desperately important concept:
“Research supports the notion that psychologically healthy biological relatives of people with schizophrenia have unusually creative jobs and hobbies and tend to show higher levels of schizotypal personality traits compared to the general population. Note that schizotypy is not schizophrenia. Schizotypy consists of a constellation of personality traits that are evident in some degree in everyone.”
That “research” they mention is a study done in 2010. That link is in the resources.
The Scientific American article continues with more clarity, so I encourage anyone who’s interested in this to read it. It’s worth it.
Here’s the gist:
During a test comparing brain scans of creative people performing a task and non-creative people performing the same task, there were clear differences in how two parts of the brain behaved.
The test was designed to stimulate a part of the brain that maintains focus and activity. We’re going to call this “outer focus”. This area lit up during the task.
In the non-creative group, when the outer focus area lit up, another part went quiet. We can call this the “inner focus” area. This area is involved with memory, self-thought, and inner processing.
In the creative group, both areas were active during the task. This, researchers said, allowed more original connections between memory and current sensory input. Different individuals had different levels of activity going on in the inner focus area, indicating this trait is on a spectrum.
The results from this collection of studies suggest creative people and those with serious mental illness share space on the same spectrum of brain activity – activity that can yield both positive and negative results for human health.
When hearing stories of geniuses who suffered terrible mental breakdowns for their work, whether from substance abuse, undiagnosed serious illness, or refusing treatment for a known illness, please do not glorify their self-abusing choices, and do not imitate their example.
Here are a few things to do instead:
- Understand having a mind that reacts differently than most does not make a creative person ill, and the degree of cross-over does not determine the quality of a person’s work. Practice and developed skills do that.
- Artificially stimulating the brain to behave in new ways, especially with substances or behaviors that endanger your health, is not a path to success. You need to be alive and aware enough in the future to enjoy that success.
- Those with a mental illness (of any level of severity) should be treated with understanding, compassion, experience, empathy, and (where necessary) medication.
- If you are experiencing symptoms of mental illness, seek help from qualified professionals. Find a treatment plan that helps you be your best self.
- Writing, and other forms of expression, are ways to tend to your mental and emotional needs. Research how to use what you already do to help in difficult situations. If you need formal treatment, see if what you’re passionate about can be incorporated into your treatment plan.
Writing (and art in general) is not a symptom of mental illness. It is a treatment, and an expression of what makes each creative mind unique.
Creativity in Offspring of Schizophrenic and Control Parents: An Adoption Study – Kinney, Richards, Lowing, LeBlanc, Zimbalist, Harlan http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/S15326934CRJ1301_3
The relationship between measures of creativity and schizotypy – Mark Bate, Adiran Furnham https://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/33524/the-relationship-between-measures-creativity-and-schizotypy.pdf
Failing to deactivate: the association between brain activity during a working memory task and creativity. – Takeuchi, Taki, Hashizume, Sassa, Magase, Nouchi, Kawashima https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21111830
Hyperactivity and hyperconnectivity of the default network in schizophrenia and in first-degree relatives of persons with schizophrenia. – Whitfield-Gabrieli, Thermenos, Milanovic, Tsuang, Faraone, McCarley, Shenton, Green, Nieto-Castanon, LaViolette, Wojcik, Gabrieli, Seidman http://www.pnas.org/content/106/4/1279.abstract
Creativity and schizotypy from the neuroscience perspective – Fink, Weber, Koschutnig, Benedek, Reishofer, Ebner, Papousek, Weiss http://scottbarrykaufman.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Fink-et-al.-2013.pdf
Mental Health Resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
National Association for Mental Illness
M-F, 10 AM – 6 PM ET
Find Help in a crisis or Text “NAMI” to 741741