The Importance of the Impossible
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Creativity: the Origin of Madness

Posted by A.E. Marling in Madness and Creativity

A fantasy writer must dredge up impossibilities to paint a mosaic of unbelievable wonder. Often, I have questioned if doing so required a whiff of madness. Not that I am the first to suspect a link between creativity and a fraying mind.

“The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact”
– Shakespeare

“Great wits are sure to madness near allied”
– John Dryden, Poet Laureate

The composer Robert Schumann wrote music in torrents of creativity that bordered on mania. “…sometimes I am so full of music, so overflowing with melody, that I find it simply impossible to write down anything.” In his last years, he attempted suicide and voluntarily committed himself to a mental institution.

The great composer likely lived with something approaching bipolar disorder. In mania, the sense of confidence boils into delusions and unproductive—even dangerous—practices, and the mood plunges thereafter into the paralysis of depression. Neither extreme aids the artist, and no form of diagnosable madness should be envied or made light of.

In another case study, the schizophrenic Adolf Wolfli spent his life in an asylum, in creative confinement. His crazed paintings grew popular in outsider circles, and he wrote 25,000 pages of imagined journeys over the world and into self-invented myth. He spouted neologisms and invented words, his imagination vaulting to the point where “nothing has the usual scale, form, or significance.” [1] For instance, he would scribble, “And the Cedars-of-Eden, 1,999,900 hours high…”

His mental Odysseys lacked the coherence to ever be widely read, but at least Adolf Wolfli could distinguish his storytelling from reality. Many schizophrenics lack that advantage, and they have difficulty sustaining focus on their work.

People who support themselves through their creativity tend to have personality traits the opposite of psychotic: “self-discipline, tenacity, organization, calmness, and strong self-image.”[1] That is not to say artists are more sane than average. If anything, they have a firm hand on their insanity.

Prevalence of Madness

Being a busy author, I took advantage of Daniel Nettle’s analysis of the metadata. In his book, Strong Imagination, Madness, Creativity, and Human Nature, Dr. Nettle wrote that he discovered the canon of Western culture was by and large “produced by people with a touch of madness.”

One study found novelists to have a 20% incidence of a mood disorder, compared to 6% in the general population. A full 80% of writers displayed traits suggestive of affective disorders (bipolar disorder), compared to 30% baseline. Another study testing for psychotic traits detected them in 77% of fiction writers, with 42% in the rest. All the results found poets and screenwriters to be even more at risk. (The least psychotic professional? Scientists.)

I was skeptical of some of these results. The research could not have double blinds. People could not be assigned randomly to groups of mad and sane then told to write a novel. The researchers knew what they wanted to find, had an agenda to justify Shakespeare’s hunch. Another study discovered only a modest correlation between mental disorders and creativity, with the truly mad too disorganized to create.

The study that convinced me of a link examined not the artists themselves but their relatives. Disorders of the mind tend to be triggered by a traumatic event, but genes still give a double-helix push toward madness. This study determined that the relatives of creative people had a higher incidence of psychotic genes. Whether or not the artists themselves displayed any neuroses, they were more likely to be carrying the building blocks of insanity.

The Whiff of Madness

We are all mad by degrees. Those who earn their living by allowing their imagination to sweep them away to uncharted lands may be benefiting from the same genes that, in the less fortunate, cause madness.

In the case of the schizophrenic, a lower volition (sense of self and self-command) spirals into either apathy or an inability to modulate thoughts. Ideas and emotions may seem to arise from outside sources in the psychotic, while many artists claim to glean their Eureka moments from a muse. Both are examples of divergent thinking, when nonconscious mental processing gifts us with a new concept. This is also called intuition, or that instant of remembering the name that has hovered for seconds at the tip of our tongue. Artists tend to have strong divergent thinking, while the psychotic have too much.

A typical person may look at the picture of a hammer and think of construction, of building projects, and of nails. A schizophrenic might instead think of other objects of high density, of ravens with iron feathers, or of the molecules in the wooden handle. Their mental associates are loser, frayed if you will, which are less practical but more creative. Interpretations of oscillate from too literal to puzzlingly abstract: A lion tamer is a big cat that is more placid than average. A picture of a volcano is not just an outlet for lava but a “volcano of thought.”[1] All sense of mental balance essential for normal function slips away into the abyss of the condition.

On the other hand, “a little divergent thinking is surely a great advantage,” says Dr. Nettle, as it can provide creative solutions to help humans adapt, and seeing the world in a new light is essential to the artist. A moderate dose of the mania from bipolar disorder also is a near requirement for the novelist. We writers need a borderline-insane belief in ourselves and our ability to succeed at the year-long seclusion of creating a novel that has an overwhelming chance of failure. The composer Schumann benefited from a hypomania, producing piano-breaking quantities of music with his maniacal energy and confidence. Stephen Fry is also thankful for his “bipolar lite.”

At the other extreme of mania, depression destroys an artist’s confidence and desire to create. I discuss this nemesis of creation more in this post.

By now, you should have an inkling of the benefits of possessing a dusting of madness, and why humanity will never be without its madmen.

Why Insanity?

Evolution selects against traits that harm a species, and madness without question sabotages its sufferers. However, those with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder represent the extremes, the end of the bell curve of traits that benefit mankind. People with bipolar disorder tend to come from more affluent families,[1] and the divergent thinking of schizophrenics is the same mental process that provides Homo sapiens its greatest strength: creativity.

So, artists, treasure your absent mindedness, your disordered and sometimes nonsensical thoughts. They are a small price to pay. And whenever you encounter people with mental disorders, treat them with sympathy and respect. In a way, they bear the weight of humanity’s triumph.

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7 Responses

  • L.G.Smith says:

    Writers are crazy, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. Enjoyed the post. 🙂

  • A.E. Marling says:

    I was speaking to fellow fantasy author Jennifer N. Simas (@AuthorJenNS), and she mentioned “I think artists have a different way of thinking and dreaming than others do.”

    Dreaming is a prime example of divergent mental processing, the nonconscious bringing images and ideas together in new, and often bizarre ways. I suspect that creative people have more amazing dreams than average.

  • Kathi says:

    Excellent post. I readily admit I’m nuts, and, yes, there are voices in my head. Many, many voices. Re: dreams – most of my non-creative friends find it odd that, not only do I dream in full color and surround sound, I don’t have nightmares because I’m aware when I’m dreaming and can alter the dream if I don’t like the way it’s going.

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  • Very interesting post. I must say that among the ones labeled with bad mental health I have met some very creative and interesting people. If they were able to emerge from the abyss of their illness they created amazing things.
    I have never written anything of consequence, even though my teachers always thought I should, and though I tried many ways of creating things I am by no means an artist, but I can tell you from the point of view of one who is diagnosed at least this: Living with personality disorder was, and is, hell laced with beautiful wonders. Because your post is very true in this: Boundaries of things are flexible or non-existent, they create unexpected mosaics and trigger associations that are inexplicable by normal reasoning, images and dreams float through mind much the same way when awake as they do when asleep. If I was able to write or draw what I see… It’s amazing as well as it is sometimes terrifying.
    So from meeting other more or less crazy people and from my own experience, I would say that there is strong connection between creativity and insanity. I think that the artists are those who are sane and talented enough in the media they use to translate what they see and feel into the common reality.

  • gordsellar says:

    You know, I actually did a bit of research into this–mainly to figure out how getting TEFL students (people trying to learn English as a foreign language) could benefit from being assigned creative projects like making a documentary film or group-authoring and creating a comic book–as opposed to traditional language teaching approaches.

    What I found, in a big fat survey of Creativity that sought to balance all the different views, was that fundamentally, creativity depends on thought processes common to all people. While the idea that madness and genius or creativity are linked was discussed (especially as being one of the oldest models of creatvitity) it was found that mainly, madness did not help, and often hindered creativity.

    One insight I found particularly interesting was that motivation seemed to play the biggest part in the production of interesting creative work: people who wanted to get the task done went for the most perfunctory solution — the straight line through the maze to the exit. People motivated to explore–to create something interesting, to be creative, to be recognized as creative–tended not to approach it as a task to be completed, but as a process of exploration, full of deeper implicit challenges.

    (Which of course relates to motivation in language learning, because the same applies: people who want to get an A in the class take no risks, answer questions in the safest and most fundamentally simple way possible, and never expand their vocabulary or command of grammar more than necessary, while people who want to learn explore, challenge themselves to use new words to figure out how a particular grammatical structure works, and so on.)

    But as for absentmindedness and so on: I doubt those are more widely present in artists than the general population, but confirmation bias makes people think that they see it more in creatives.

    • A.E. Marling says:

      Thank you for adding the insight of the importance of motivation. Often, it is the situation in which people are placed more than personality that determines actions, and I’m not surprised modifying the environment, situation, and mindset could cause improvements in creativity.

      I did wish to clarify that the theory is not that those who are mad are better off or in a good position to put their creativity to use. Rather, that creativity-supporting genes in excess result in madness. The difference between these two lines of thinking is that evolutionary theory is speculative, hard to prove, and more fascinating than practical. On the other hand, social psychology grants tools to change people positively, so thank you again for your contribution.