To study or not to study: That is the question

As I wrap up work on an edited book on creativity and mental illness, I began musing on the general topic of “Is this worth studying?” I have adapted the beginning of the chapter, which responded to these questions, into a blog.

Should we study creativity and mental illness? 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.” (Stoppard, 1993, 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!” (Stone & Edwards, 1976, p. 38)

But another part of me believes in the WGASA factor. I have discussed this before (Kaufman, 2009), 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.

Where does that leave the study of creativity and mental illness? To be continued in my next blog….

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