MadSci Network: Neuroscience

Re: Why do creative people seem to be more susceptible to depression?

Date: Wed Mar 17 15:39:21 1999
Posted By: Salvatore Cullari, Professor and Chair, Lebanon Valley College
Area of science: Neuroscience
ID: 920873392.Ns

“Great wits are sure to madness near allied and thin partitions do their 
bounds divide” (John Dryden, 1681); “We poets in our youth begin in 
gladness but thereof comes in the end despondency and madness” (William 
Wordsworth).  As you can see you are not the first person to notice a 
connection between creativity and depression or other forms of mental 
illness. In fact Aristotle spoke about this centuries ago. Some of the 
famous poets, writers and artists who suffered from depression, bipolar 
disorder or other forms of psychological disturbances include Edgar Allan 
Poe, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Vincent van Gogh, Mark Twain, Hermann 
Hesse and Georgia O’Keeffe.  There are of course countless other examples. 

There does seem to be a connection between creativity and some forms of 
mental illness (for example see Kay Jamison’s article entitled Manic-
Depressive Illness and Creativity, Scientific American, February, 1995 or 
go to this  URl  
Recent studies suggest that many highly creative persons suffer from mood 
disorders or alcoholism and also have a high rate of suicide.  Of course, 
as with other types of correlations we have to be careful about jumping to 
cause and effect conclusions. For example, it may be that some mood 
disorders foster creativity or it may be that the lifestyle of creative 
persons is more likely to lead to depression.  On the other hand, a third 
variable may be responsible for both a person’s creativity and increased 
vulnerability to emotional disturbances, and thus there may be no casual 
link between creativity and mental illness.  

It is clear that not all people that are have mood disorders are creative 
and it is also clear that not all creative people have mood disorders.  So 
the answer is probably somewhere in-between.  Jamison speculates that the 
symptoms of some mood disorders such as manic depression do foster 
creativity. For example, a manic episode may lead to increased word fluency 
or frequency of thoughts.  People who are in a manic episode tend to be 
very impulsive and  “risk takers”, and perhaps some of these behaviors are 
more likely to lead to creative endeavors. Also, people in a manic phase 
tend to function with very little sleep so they can  work very intensely 
during these times.   The highly emotional and introspective nature of many 
creative persons may also enhance the ability to be creative.  

On the other hand, Robert Weisberg (author of Creativity, 1992), suggests 
that there may be other reasons to explain this connection. For example, 
manic people may simply be able to function better in artistic occupations 
as compared to other types of jobs.  Similarly, the sheer number of 
products that manic people produce may increase the likelihood that some of 
these works (but not all) will be creative.  

In any event, although there is a lot of evidence pointing to a connection 
between creativity and certain mental disorders, the exact relationship is 
not yet known.  Most of the studies that have been done in this area tend 
to be correlational in nature, and thus cause some problems in 
interpretation.  At the same time a true experimental design  (with random 
assignment, manipulation of variables and experimental control) may be very 
difficult to carry out for pratical and ethical reasons.    

However, here are a few additional sources of information that address your 
question and that you may find interesting.


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