Monday, September 22, 2008

Creativity and Mental Illness

Like most poorly understood issues and almost everything in the "field" of psychology there are wildly divergent points of view on the links between mental illness and creativity. This most recent piece from Psychology Today is largely dismissive.

Genius and Madness: Creativity and mood: The myth that madness heightens creative genius.

As with mental disorders, there is something mysterious and unexplainable about the creative process. But all significant creative leaps have two very important components—talent and technique. By far the most universal and necessary aspect of technique is dogged persistence, which is anything but romantic.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, best known for his work on flow, has spent four decades studying the creative process. He recounts the experience of sculptor Nina Holton. "Tell anybody you're a sculptor and they'll say, 'Oh, how exciting, how wonderful,'" Holton told him. Her response to such comments: "What's so wonderful?" Then she explains that being a sculptor is "like being a mason or a carpenter half the time." She finds that "they don't wish to hear that because they really only imagine the first part, the exciting part. But, as Khruschev once said, that doesn't fry pancakes, you see. That germ of an idea does not make a sculpture that stands up. So the next stage is the hard work. Can you really translate it into a piece of sculpture?"

It's entirely possible, Weisberg notes, that the elevated rates of mental disorders among artistic geniuses comes about as a result of the creative lifestyle, which hardly provides emotional stability. Many artists struggle against poverty and public indifference in their lifetime. And if they do indeed produce works that are acclaimed, they could succumb to the overwhelming pressure to live up to their earlier successes.

Its is hard to ignore the mountains of biographies and anecdotal evidence that have pointed for so long in the other direction.

Kay Redfield Jamison's Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament is one of the best examinations of bipolar disorder among artists.

An interesting insight from the University of Toronto and Harvard (2003): Biological Basis For Creativity Linked To Mental Illness

The study in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology says the brains of creative people appear to be more open to incoming stimuli from the surrounding environment. Other people's brains might shut out this same information through a process called "latent inhibition" - defined as an animal's unconscious capacity to ignore stimuli that experience has shown are irrelevant to its needs. Through psychological testing, the researchers showed that creative individuals are much more likely to have low levels of latent inhibition.

Mental illness has often been used to inform creative process and serve as a basis for aesthetic development. For years I've been meaning to write an essay on David Lynch's aesthetic and mental illness. This is especially true of his early work. Notice the way that pauses, sounds and "looks" from people take on massive significance and cause for moments of anxiety in Eraserhead. This is a hallmark of many forms of mental illness, seemingly insignificant occurrences producing life-shattering, paralyzing effects on the afflicted.

Salvador Dali, who is famous for saying "the only difference between a madman and myself is that I am not mad" developed what he called the Paranoiac-Critical method, the "spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena."

His authobiography, Salvador Dal: Diary of a Genius is my favorite artist biography. The first line: At the age of six years I wanted to be a chef. At the age of seven I wanted to be Napoleon. My ambitions have continued to grow at the same rate ever since.


Kim said...

Having the desire and the perseverance to create in the first place means that you're seeing the world differently, not conforming and have a deep-rooted need to express your viewpoint. The process of creating something out of nothing, locking yourself away to do it (or convincing others to help you carry out your vision) and then presenting it to the world to critique, can be maddening in and of itself but the artist repeats this process again and again. The question of whether it's a psychological pre-disposition (in the form of some "abnormality") or a result of the process..? I think it's probably a little bit of both. Then again, what's normal?

Bob Ichter said...

I agree with Kim, but also think that it is the creating itself, not the desire, that causes an artist to see the world in a different way. I distinctly remember that when I decided to learn how to paint and tried to do my first few landscapes I immediately began to see things I had never noticed before.
I wonder if taking art lessons might not open anyone's eyes to things that normally pass them by?

Peter Holland said...

Ok, there is a popular myth that to be a genius artist you have also to have mental health issues.

If that were the case, my ex-wife would be a master-sculptor and I would be a severe case of Borderline Personality Disorder.

I am being a bit flip, but also make a serious point.

I think for every personality type there is also a genius artist within that category. There are studious artists (Rousseau), funny artists (Cook), neat artists (Dali), untidy artists (Pollock), drunk artists, sober artists etc etc.

It's just that we remember the ones who cut their ears off.

I consider myself perfectly normal. Then, some people have the utter audacity to say that I am NOT a genius!!

Thanks for a great blog.


Thomas Sherman said...

Pter, thank you.

Yea, there are a million personality configurations and they don't necessarily lead to or hinder social success let alone something as slippery to define as "artistic genius.

Human do engage in a dreadful logical fallacy, believing that if they ape the behavior of someone in possession of something they want (talent, money, fame etc) that those things mike come to them as well.

"Picasso ate cucumber, if I want to be a great painter, I should eat cucumbers'... you get my point

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Did you know that DalĂ­ attributed his "love of everything that is gilded and excessive, my passion for luxury and my love of oriental clothes??? I think that he is really important to the history! said...

It cannot have effect in reality, that is what I think.