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Creativity, A Silver Lining To Mental Illness

How can something as glamorous and sought after as creativity be linked to mental illness? It might be surprising but high levels of creativity and strange behavioral patterns seem to be connected.

Although we are all creative to some extent, certain types of creativity are connected to psychopathology. It is said that humans are built to be creative, and this creativity in us might be one of the defining factors still keeping mental disorders alive in our gene pool.

The evolutionary perspective suggests that there is a creative advantage to mental illness and that might be one of the reasons for its prevalence in the human gene pool.

When explaining the vulnerability to mental disorders, researcher Randolph Nesse states that natural selection has left humans susceptible to mental disorders just as it has with physical disorders. He says although creative people may be more prone to mental illness, it can affect any individual who is exposed to novel environmental factors. The correlation between environmental and biological factors need to be taken into consideration while understanding the impact of creativity on mental illness.

Looking specifically at the growth of the familiar yet debilitating mental illness schizophrenia and the evolutionary advantages associated with it might provide a better understanding of some of the advantages to mental illness.

Genes, Creativity And Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder which affects around 1–3% of the human population. It is an illness of the brain where the individual finds it hard to differentiate between what is real and unreal.“The mutations that cause the disease would be expected to slowly phase out of the human gene pool, along with schizophrenia itself. However, the occurrence of schizophrenia is still surprisingly constant across the world.” — Traci Pedersen

Emily Deans suggests that the prevalence of the schizophrenic gene is due to its advantages associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine which enhances creativity among sufferers of schizophrenia, including people who are closely related to the affected individuals. She says “given dopamine’s role in creativity, motivation, and drive, the suspected genetic advantage of being a relative of a schizophrenic is that you may have a bit of extra dopamine, but not so much it will make you psychotic.”

Although psychotic thinking is somewhat disjointed and surreal, small amounts of it might be beneficial in the society we live in. Some other researchers have suggested that the schizophrenia genes have survived because of the benefits associated with schizotypy. Schizotypy is a mild form of schizophrenia found in many individuals without any serious implications. Nelson and Rawlings, two researchers writing in the Schizophrenia Bulletin, suggested that “Positive schizotypy is associated with central features of ‘flow’-type experience, including distinct shift in phenomenological experience, deep absorption, focus on present experience, and sense of pleasure.”

Some good examples of schizophrenia associated with famous creative personalities include the work of painter Edvard Munch called “The Scream”, a highly acclaimed work which might be better understood through the artist’s claim that “Sickness, insanity and death were the angels that surrounded my cradle and they have followed me throughout my life.”

Van Gogh, who also suffered from Schizophrenia, famously sliced part of his left ear during a bout of depression and drew a famous portrait of himself with a bandaged ear. The concept of profound artwork being created by artists suffering from schizophrenia has existed throughout history.

In his paper, “The Neurological View of the “Tortured Artist“” Adrienne Sussman lists many such revered artists who were mentally ill yet made works that continue to be highly regarded.

This correlation between genius and schizophrenia is one of the many mysteries psychiatrists are still trying to fully understand. Overall, such findings give new meaning to mental illness, and question the authenticity of an approach that sees alternative mental states as a form of ‘disease’.

Creativity is highly promoted in our societies, but mental illness is demoted. Maybe it’s time to take the correlation between the two a little more seriously.

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