Creativity and Mental Illness: Some thoughts from my upcoming book

Just finished the proofs for my upcoming edited book Creativity and Mental Illness and thought I would share a version of my final chapter, which represents my own thoughts on the matter….

I think it stands alone well enough to include most of it here as a blog….

As I was finishing up this project, a colleague asked me a question that stuck with me – why exactly was I doing this book? I ask myself that question every time I am in the final stages of an edited project, as I track down the last chapters and begin the marketing questionnaires. But, of course, this question was a bit deeper. Why creativity and mental illness? Why study it?

Some would argue the topic has been done to death. There have been hundreds and hundreds of studies, most of them analyzing one small piece of the puzzle. Small effects or mixed results are overstated – or consistent patterns are minimized. The benchmark papers are flawed and, even if perfectly executed, would only shed light on one aspect of the question. The analogy of the blind men and the elephant (all touching a different part of the creature and reaching quite distinct assumptions about its essence) is overused but particularly apt in this field.

Part of me is ready for this question with two quotes. One is from my favorite play, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. Spoken by an academic (whose first sentence addresses disparate research in mathematics, history, and English literature), some people find it depressing; I find it inspiring:

“It’s all trivial – your grouse, my hermit, Bernard’s Byron. Comparing what we’re looking for misses the point. It’s wanting to know that makes us matter… If the answers are in the back of the book I can wait, but what a drag. Better to struggle on knowing that failure is final.” (pp. 75-76).

The other quote is from one of my favorite musicals, 1776. As the members of the continental congress bandy about the idea of independence, there is a vote called about whether official debate can begin. The tie-breaking vote is left to Rhode Island’s Stephen Hopkins. He says:

“So it’s up to me, is it? Well, I tell y’, in all my years I never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous that it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yes, I’m for debatin’ anything — Rhode Island says Yea!”

But another part of me believes in the WGASA factor. I have discussed this before, but to recap… The WGASA factor is named after the (now sadly defunct) WGASA Bush Line at the Wild Animal Park in San Diego. Years ago, the park held a contest to name the monorail. After some fruitless discussion, one executive amended a memo to say WGASA. What did that mean? The official line is it stands for “World’s Greatest Animal Show Anywhere.” According to legend (which I hope is true), it stands for something much simpler: “Who Gives a S**t Anyway?”

So much of scholarship doesn’t pass the WGASA test (who actually cares?). It also doesn’t pass the WGASA corollary, which is that research should ideally lead to more positive outcomes than negative ones. We can’t all cure cancer, but ideally we aren’t teaching little cancer cells to reproduce more effectively.

So where does that leave creativity and mental illness? My main empirical contribution to the field (so far) has been the “Sylvia Plath Effect.” It came from a large study I embarked on about creative writers and their life histories. Put quite simply, I found that among eminent writers, female poets were more likely than other writers (male novelists, male poets, male playwrights, male journalists, female novelists, female playwrights, and female journalists) to have experienced mental illness in their life. In my second study for the paper, I found that among eminent women, poets were more likely to have experienced mental illness than actors, politicians, artists, novelists, and journalists. It initially came out with little fanfare. I followed up with some theory papers and some empirical studies that mostly found further evidence that poets were more likely to die young or have poor mental health. An odd confluence of events led the press to treat this as news in 2004, and it became blogger-fodder (and has remained since). I noticed that aside from the usual signal-noise issues, there were some strong feelings emerging.

Some people were pissed off:

“The globally morbid interest in these women and their choices to die, as well as the manners in which they chose to die has been perpetuated by Kaufman. By portraying their creativity as hysterical and intrinsically linked to mental illness, he has belittled their literary output and the artistic influence it has had. Other women writers also said to suffer from The Sylvia Plath Effect include Sara Teasdale, Anne Sexton and Sarah Kane, who all committed suicide, leaving behind them great volumes of writing brushed idly aside by the fame their dramatic deaths.  Kaufman is peddling tabloid drama that surely fails to override the great output of these women and the intellectual contributions they have made….To reduce these women’s lives to mere spectacle is surely to belittle their art.” 

Others embraced the idea:

“I wouldn’t call it the Plath effect. I mean, LOTS of creative people are alcoholics, drug abusers, etc. Plenty of writers have suffered with addiction, mental illnesses, etc. It’s also shown that addictive personalities and creative minds are almost interlinked. I suffer gladly for my imagination. I myself am bi polar, with an addictive personality, and I use substances to turn the monsters off in my head. Oh, to be normal… not really. Normal is boring. I couldn’t imagine not having the ability to create and destroy whenever I inclined.”

And others were self-reflective:

“How do we not self-destruct? How do we, as master’s artists, be we poets, painters, musicians, belly-dancers, keep from isolating ourselves and fashioning our own pine boxes? I would like to say, I am not longer in the dark dangerous place. But sometimes I wonder. I have to fight to enter into community. It is tough to drag myself even to my cyber gatherings at times, because I grapple with the difficult circumstances of life and the ever-present rejection of the “industry.” It is hard to hold my head up sometimes even when i know my work is blessed, some have even said, anointed. But then I struggle with all the polishing…I get down about it all.

Unlike so much of academic scholarship, people care about this topic. Creative individuals particularly care. In addition, research on creativity and mental illness – and the public interpretation of such work – may impact how the average person views those who are creative. Right now, creative people are not always viewed in a particularly positive light (subject for past and future blogs). The idea that creativity is linked with mental illness (which is itself subject to a strong stigma) likely does not help make public perceptions any more favorable.

So what comes next? The cliché ending of a research paper is “More research is needed.” Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say that more research is needed – there is plenty of research out there (and much of it has been discussed, summarized, and critiqued within these pages). But I’d like to see work that is precise about what part of the elephant is being studied, and then keeps the discussion firmly focused on that piece. Examining anxiety in ballet dancers is different from looking at how schizophrenics perform on a divergent thinking test, which is itself different from an analysis of hypomania and poetry writing in college students.

The topic of creativity and mental illness can be emotional – people tend to study things that are important to them, and both constructs are highly personal. It is also an area of popular interest, which can mean sudden attention from journalists. I can only speak for myself, but it is far too easy to make grand conclusions or pronouncements in conversation and then see them in print and think, “Uh oh.” I have never been misquoted, but I have said some mighty stupid things. Finally, it is a romantic subject – there are all sorts of poems and paintings that can inspire the type of hyperbolizing that is less appropriate in science. We can sometimes get carried away. I imagine that it is less tempting for a proctologist to begin a research article with an epigram by someone like Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker.

As I believe the essays in Creativity and Mental Illness demonstrate, we have come a long way. We can (and should) approach the question with new perspectives (such as neuroscience) and new (and more specific) definitions of creativity and mental illness. But we should also take care when presenting our research, both in academic and popular circles. To quote from Stoppard’s Arcadia one last time, “One does not aim at poetry with pistols. At poets, perhaps” (p. 41).



  1. Miriam S. Hoffman

    How might we look at mental illness in female poets in relationship of the general acceptance of their work by their families, friends and colleagues, in relationship to the social-economic stresses that accompany being a poet, in relationship of mental illness and gender bias, and other compounding factors?

    The very nature of doing something creative, something that has not been seen before in its current incarnation brings with it a prejudice to view the work and the creator as “other,” which has its basis in survival instinct and in the potential threat posed of anything novel in one’s environment. By extension in current society, the bias against creativity is alive and well at many junctures.

    Without fanfare, people in all professional fields commit suicide. Living and working in a public forum tends to “fishbowl” the perception of creativity and mental illness amongst those who creative for a living.

  2. Jerry Pritchard

    Very much looking forward to reading this book, James.

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