The Great Error of the Romantic View of Creativity and Mental Illness

This is an essay by Aaron Pederson.

“…For thousands of years, people have made the observation that there’s certain kinds of extreme depressive states that seem more likely to produce philosophers, people in the arts, unusually brilliant scientists.”

—Kay Jamison Redfield

I used to idealize the “crazy” side of artists. I’d look at the sorrow of musicians and rappers and writers and think that their pain must be the source of their creativity. For me, Eminem was a big example of how misery aids creativity. His latest solo album, Recovery, was about his struggle recovering from depression.

So I thought as a writer, it’d be wise to keep some kind of suffering in my life. This would heighten my senses, fuel my imagination and give me something to write about. It’d make me a better artist. Boy, was I being stupid—and this realization came after reading a few books on the subject of creativity and mental illness.

A particular eye-opening book was Daniel Nettle’s Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature. Nettle’s conclusion was that if you yearn to embark on a creative career, you shouldn’t adopt the foolish view that “you’re more creative when you’re depressed or mentally ill.” That view is truly wrong and by the end of this article I hope to convince you—with the help of Nettle’s firm grasp on the subject—why it’s wrong.

According to Nettle, there’s a central confusion that crumbles the foundation of this romantic belief, this idea that mental illness fuels creative thinking. The confusion lies between the notions of “neurosis” and “neuroticism,” or “psychosis” and “psychoticism.”

The Great Error  

“Neurosis” is defined as the actual symptoms of a person’s storm-tossed soul. Depression, social withdrawal, anxiety, unbridled anger—these are symptoms of neurosis.

“Neuroticism,” on the other hand, is defined as the personality trait that merely predisposes a person to neurosis. You and me can be happy, healthy and functional people even though we have shaky genes. Genes that, given an unfortunate environment or heartrending life circumstance, can hurl us into, say, severe depression.

(The same distinction is made between psychosis and psychoticism.)

Nettle believes that neither “psychosis” nor “neurosis” itself is useful to creativity. Being clinically depressed, being unbearably anxious, hearing voices in our heads or having grand delusion play in our minds is rather debilitating to our productivity. Nobody creates anything fruitful in the heat of a mental breakdown.

Robert Lowell, an American poet who suffered severe manic-depression, once said: “It isn’t danger, it’s not an accomplishment. I don’t think it is a visitation of the angels, but a weakening of the blood.”

What Really Aids Creative Thinking 

With that said, the underlying genotype that allows for psychosis or neurosis is what aids creative thinking, i.e. having “psychoticism” or “neuroticism” trickling through our bloodline.

At this point you may be wondering why? Why might the “genotype” be advantageous and not the actual “illness?”

The answer is quite simple. A person with, say, neuroticism sprouting in their family tree may be naturally more sensitive, more perceptive, more intuitive and more introspective than a person with more stable genes. And if that person keeps healthy (physically and mentally), maintains good relationships and practices positive thinking, he or she can channel that depth, that unique understanding into creative activities without any inhibitions.

But the deeply depressed, for example, face too many inhibitions for their work to be productive. They’re simply too listless, too troubled to create anything significant.

Now, for the rare cases of people who do make great art in the midst of a dark storm, Nettle believes that they’re simply exceptional people with rare intelligence, determination, self-discipline, resilience and even a ray of optimism burning brightly beneath the rainclouds.

And even though it’s these positive qualities that are responsible for their success—and not their sickness—we tend to fall into the trap of romanticising mental illness. We emphasize the positives and overlook the negatives. We forget that these rare individuals were resourceful and productive not because of their illness, but in spite of it. And we forget that aside from their achievements they still suffer tremendously.

Kay Jamison, an American psychologist who had suffered from Bipolar Disorder, explains: “Byron and Van Gogh wanted to be treated. Byron traveled with doctors, Van Gogh admitted himself, finally, to a hospital. They were in agony, in pain and in suffering.”

The sad fact is, had Van Gogh and Byron been treated successfully, they probably would have been even more productive. Or had they lived today where treatment was more effective and available, they still would’ve remained deeply creative. With drugs, with treatment, their suffering would have diminished, not their imagination.

So we’ve learned that the actual symptoms of mental illness are not beneficial to creativity, but rather it’s the underlying gene. But how can we adopt the advantageous aspects of this special gene, of “psychoticism” or “neuroticism”, without taking on the negatives, i.e. the madness?

How to Enhance Our Creativity and Discard Our Madness

The personality traits of “psychoticism” and “neuroticism” give rise to two things: enhanced creativity and mental illness. The key, then, is to eat the seed and spit out the shell, to enrich our creative faculties and discard any potentialities towards madness.

We can do this by understanding why a person with “psychoticism” or “neuroticism” running in their family has a creative edge. We’ve already discussed that it can make us more sensitive, perceptive, intuitive and introspective—but it’d be hard to enrich these traits since they’re largely inherited. Thankfully, there’s another artistic advantage in these personality dimensions that we can manipulate and develop—high mood.

People with an inclination towards mental illness seem better able to put themselves in good moods, in high spirits. Doing so gives them motivation to endure the gruelling process of completing a creative project.

As Nettle advises, we can self-generate this “high mood” by making good choices, surrounding ourselves with suitable friends, putting ourselves in gratifying situations, being sociable, exercising regularly, being optimistic and realistic about life and making courageous decisions that move us in positive directions. We can remove the stressors in our lives before they leach into our skin and dampen our positivity. We can live the life we want to live, a life that makes us happy.

If we do this, we’ll notice the benefits of a cheery mood—we’ll be more creative, bold, productive, motivated and focused. We’ll be a few notches under a manic-depressive’s “manic state,” and that’s exactly where a creative person wants to be.

To summarize: It’s not mental anguish (neurosis) itself that makes a person more creative, but the personality trait that makes them likely to experience anguish (neuroticism). It’s not psychosis itself that makes a person more creative—who could be productive in such a collapse?—but their sensitive, reflective character that hovers along the fringes of madness. Artists can have their cake and eat it too—we can rid ourselves of suffering without disposing our creative powers. How liberating!

Now it has become clear to me. Although Eminem’s depression may have inspired the material for his album, it’s obvious he was trying to escape and outgrow his troubles. He wasn’t welcoming his suffering—he was working through it, viciously trying to shed it. And you and me should do likewise.

As Daniel Nettle puts it, “People with a vulnerability to psychosis should not embrace their predestined trip; rather they should grab hold of every tool they can to protect themselves, including, most importantly, living a healthy life, just as fiercely as those burdened with a predisposition to cancer.”

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Aaron Pederson is a copywriter and freelance writer by trade and, in his spare time, he writes about creativity. He believes that creative people must be diligent and disciplined in their work, because if they aren’t channelling their creative energy productively their personal life can get messy. He has self-published a book called Lessons for Creative People, a short book on creative recovery. He blogs often at http://creativeethos.net about the creative spirit, and the many lessons we can learn from living he creative life. You can follow him on twitter @Creative_Ethos.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Nasir Nasrallah.

9 Replies to “The Great Error of the Romantic View of Creativity and Mental Illness”

  1. Aaron–

    Thoroughly agree with you. Many great and creative people had/have no illnesses such as you describe and are/were highly sensitive, expansive, and productive (Walter Russell, isaac Asimov, Margaret Atwood, many others . . . ). Romantic view indeed–maybe because artists have needed an “excuse” not to follow the mainstream. No need for psychosis and suffering. I believe the key is to do what one loves, even bits and pieces at first, give oneself daily satisfactions, surround oneself with supportive others, and keep the vision of creativity and purpose ever alive. Thank you for this article.

    1. Thanks Noelle, glad you liked the article. It’s odd that our culture tends to glamourize the drinking habits of writers or the personal suffering of artists. Maybe humans are generally fascinated with suffering–especially others’. And for the artists who take to drink or drug, or refuse to take their medication for fear of dulling their creativity, maybe they’re just misinformed. I think it’s unfortunate.

  2. Hmmm…this is very interesting, but I don’t think anyone is genetically more inclined towards creativity. Creativity is a skill and can be cultivated. To me, the reason creativity may seem to run in families with tendencies towards mental illness probably has more to do with people’s capacity to cope through creating art. Painting and writing are often used in mental health treatments very successfully.

  3. As a writer who has suffered severe mental illness, this post deeply resonated with me. Anything that I’ve managed to create over the past few years has been done, as you say, in spite of the illness, certainly not because of it. Romanticizing the mental illness and addiction of artists benefits no one, and it’s an issue that needs to be more often addressed. Thanks for the post!

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