The Dark Side of Creativity

When he was in grad school, Dean Simonton wanted to study creativity and genius, but the way he went about it almost spelled his failure. Simonton had grown up reading the World Book encyclopedias, which his parents thought necessary for the child’s success in life. Between the covers of the venerable tomes, he discovered history’s most exalted artists and trailblazing inventors, and a question took root inside his mind: how does one become like those people?

The question wouldn’t go away and so for his doctoral thesis Simonton proposed to look at creativity not by studying college students in the lab, as was the norm, but by immersing himself into the lives and times of dead geniuses. He had a hard time convincing the psychology department at his university to take him seriously but in the end an advisory committee was scrambled together and the research went ahead.

One idea that Simonton examined was that of the mad genius. Looking at the data, he found a curious correlation between the mental health of highly creative people and the constraints under which they worked:

There’s a study published on this where you can compare Nobel prizes in physics with Nobel prizes in literature, and they are not cut from the same cloth.

Writers and poets, for example, create in an almost unbounded field; there are very few limits to their imaginations. And, it turns out, they suffer significantly higher rates of mental illness (84% in the case of poets), especially depression, alcoholism and suicide. Compare that with science, where creativity is severely constrained by logic and the laws of physics, plus all the current theories and conventions in the field. Unlike unconstrained creatives, only 28% of scientists struggle with mental illness — an incidence rate that’s either slightly higher or much lower (depending on the metric and study you look at) than that of the general population.

What this tells us is that there’s a dark side to creativity. We tend to gush over the flights of imagination but remain oblivious to its falls. We marvel at the mind that soars high but we don’t see that it’s just as capable of sinking low. That’s, after all, what being unconstrained implies: there are no bounds to where your thoughts can go, and no telling. A mind which can imagine what isn’t there can make a symphony, a song, a sculpture, but it can also birth a monster. What’s to stop it? The same trusting openness that lets the artist look out into the world and see magic in it — and princesses and knights and windmills — may just as well conceive of its own demise.

Most people don’t — can’t — understand this. There are limits to what thoughts can come unbidden and take up residence in our minds. The thoughts that don’t fit our mental schemas we quickly filter out, banish them like strangers at the door. But the open mind welcomes them all. Sometimes those strangers reach out a gloved hand and take you over a rainbow, or beyond a mountain, to the center of the earth or high above the clouds, and sometimes the gloved hand is laced with poison.

Philosopher Dan Dennett explains the double edge of creativity in a fascinating, if wildly speculative, way. The brain, he says, is not like a computer where each part does what it’s told to do by an underlying program. Rather than slaves controlled from the top, our 100 billion neurons are more like free agents, with their own whims and agendas and interests. Other cells in our bodies are docile, well-behaved. But our brains are risky. And the reason, Dennett says, is culture. A predictable brain can’t stumble upon fire or art. To a mind that does what it’s always done, that thinks what it’s always thought, a stone is just that, a stone.

You need a rogue agent, a restless neuron to spark off in a wrong direction, to nose around and explore what else is there, to collide and connect with other neurons in ways frivolous and unexpected until it stumbles upon something new and useful, until a stone becomes two stones rubbing together, or a sling or a spear or a statue or a pot.

Everything we take for granted today, every wonder of our civilization, was not a given or inevitable; it was an idea born out of a brain that misbehaved. But such rewards come with greater risks.

I suspect that a more free-wheeling, anarchic organization is the secret of our greater capacities of creativity, imagination, thinking outside the box and all that, and the price we pay for it is our susceptibility to obsessions, mental illnesses, delusions and smaller problems.

This isn’t to glamorize mental illness, nor to say that genius demands madness. Indeed, Simonton finds that past a certain point, psychopathology actually stunts creative expression. And yet, all too often we idolize creativity without acknowledging the vulnerabilities that lurk within it; we see its gifts but not its perils. Or, we swing the other way, exalting normalcy and preaching how the brain should and should not be, and we forget that so much of our cherished world was once a mere idea in a mad mind.