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Yayoi Kusama – Ascension of Polkadots on the Trees at the Singapore Biennale 2006. Taken by Terence Ong in September 2006.

Part II: Art and ‘Madness’

Copyright 2013, David J. Bookbinder

I only know that summer sang in me a little while, that in me sings no more.
“Sonnet XLII,” Edna St. Vincent Millay

Many of the studies psychologists have conducted on the link between creativity and mental illness weigh in on the side of a probable connection between the two. This probable connection was first documented in a clinical study that began in 1974. Nancy Andreasen, at the time a prominent researcher in schizophrenia, studied 15 writers at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and compared them to 15 non-writers who had the same educational level as the Iowa writers but didn’t have talent or interest in creative writing. Her results: nearly 43% of the creative writers met the diagnostic criteria for Bipolar disorder, one-third had experienced an episode of depression, two-thirds of the bipolar or depressed writers had received psychiatric treatment, and five of the 15 committed suicide before the study was completed in 1987.

Johns Hopkins University psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, who herself has bipolar disorder, found a similar pattern when she examined biographical studies. For example, Jamison found that British poets were 30 times more likely than the general population to have bipolar disorder, five times more likely to commit suicide, and 20 times more likely to be committed to an asylum. She popularized the connection between mood disorders and artistic creativity in her book, Touched With Fire: Manic-depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.

Researchers who believe there is a strong connection between mood disorders and creativity have theorized that the repeated cycling between positive and negative mood typical of bipolar disorder might create a more complex mental organization, and that the a mildly manic state is conducive to the type of focus, thinking, and energy associated with creative thought.

But other researchers believe the connection between psychopathology and creativity is dubious. Some criticize the methodologies of studies conducted by Jamison and Andreasen and have come to the opposite conclusion. Albert Rothenberg, a psychiatrist at Harvard University who specializes in the creative process, had conducted a historical study of past creative geniuses, interviewed artists and scientists extensively, and conducted experiments with some 1000 research subjects. He notes that what he calls “translogical thinking” is present in both creative people and psychotics.

But creativity, Rothenberg maintains, is not pathological. Although he agrees that there is a similarity between psychotic and creative processes, there is also a boundary between them that makes all the difference.

Canadian psychiatrists A-M. Ghadirian, P. Gregoire, and H. Hosmidis (2001) reviewed the work of Jamison, Andreasen, Ludwig, and others who had claimed to find a high correlation between creativity and mood disorders, and they conducted their own studies to test prior researchers’ conclusions. They sought to compare the level of creativity of bipolar patients with that of patients with other psychopathologies (schizophrenia, depression, and personality disorder). They divided their subjects into subgroups of severely ill, moderately ill, mildly ill, and recovered subjects. They hypothesized that their results would confirm prior studies and that their bipolar subjects would prove to be more creative than the other subjects of their study. Instead, they found little difference with regard to creativity between the bipolar and other patients. However, they did find that subjects identified as moderately ill demonstrated the most creativity, regardless of their illness.

George Becker, a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, disputed the modern interpretation of the quotations from the Greeks and Romans connecting madness and art. He pointed out that when Plato and Aristotle spoke of “divine madness,” this quality was distinct from what we think of as mental illness. Instead, in Plato’s Phaedrus, it was regarded as a diving gift given to only a select few. When Aristotle, in his Poetics, asserted that those possessed of great talent were also of a melancholic temperament, he did not believe that all melancholic people were insane. Instead, in Aristotle’s time, the melancholic could be either a madman or a person of distinction depending on the balance of his bodily humors.

Becker argued that the association between mental illness and creativity does not predate the 1830s. He traced the modern-day connection of madness and art to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the Romantics appropriated the sayings of Plato, Aristotle, and others as a way of distinguishing themselves as uniquely talented individuals. “It was the aura of mania,” Becker argued, “that endowed the genius with a mystical and inexplicable quality that differentiated him from the typical man, the bourgeois, the philistine, and the merely talented.” By adopting this “aura of mania,” the Romantics could distinguish themselves from the common man. Artists defined creative genius as necessarily containing elements of mental anguish and madness. He believes that this association by artists continues into the present.

Also supporting the idea that artists are no more mad — or at least not much more mad — than other people is a study of the symptoms art students seeking therapy presented at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This study of 162 undergraduate and graduate students who came to counseling services during a one-year period found that these emerging artists had psychological disturbances comparable to those of other college students.

A 2003 study at Harvard University provides one possible causal clue to the art/madness link. The study showed that both high-functioning creative people and psychotic people seem to take in, at a sensory level, much more than most other people do. In test subjects whose IQ scores were lower than 120, this characteristic, called “decreased latent inhibition,” correlated with more mental illness. In test subjects whose IQ scores were greater than 120, however, decreased latent inhibition seemed to be associated with increased creative ability. Creative achievers in the study were seven times as likely to have low latent inhibition scores when compared to a control group of students with normal levels of latent inhibition. The researchers concluded that in people who have higher innate intelligence, what might otherwise lead to psychopathology can become an advantage. The authors hypothesized that having access to a greater range and quantity of stimuli at a later stage in mental processing can facilitate creative potential in people whose intelligence enables them to process the extra information.

The Harvard study is undoubtedly not the last word in the mad artist argument.

To be continued….

More anon,
– David
David J. Bookbinder, LMHC

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Text and images © 2013, David J. Bookbinder. All rights reserved.
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