Creativity: the Origin of MadnessPosted by 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”
“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.”  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.” 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.” 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.
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, 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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