And the beauty in pain…
I’m sure many of us have heard of the “tortured genius” archetype, and it comes to our head especially when we read a title like the one above. The lovely artist (be it a musician, poet, novelist or actual artist), capable of creating breathtaking, soulful works with a life of its own, in spite of its inner demons. Or, who knows, maybe because of them.
Therefore we can conclude a connection between creativity and mental illness: The ability to create and the harrowing demons are doomed to coexistence. There is torment for there to be talent, and there is talent for there to be torment.
“It stands to reason that some of those people are going to be creative,” Harvard University’s Shelley H. Carson, Ph.D., author of Your Creative Brain states.
The universal belief that art comes from intense emotional pain stems from the days of ancient philosophers and poets, but most of its foundation comes from a glamorization of mental illness that started during the 19th century with the Romantic movement.
There is a lot of evidence to it: Beethoven, Axel Rose, Sylvia Plath, Lord Byron, Edvard Munch, John Keats, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Van Gogh — Astoundingly creative people who battled against exasperating mental disturbances.
Yet those examples aren’t enough to prove a link and correlation doesn’t mean causation.
Yet those examples aren’t enough to prove a link and correlation doesn’t mean causation.
One in four people suffers from a mental illness, which thus means that we are likely to see creative people battling with mental illness because it’s prevalent within the general population.
So is there actually a link?
The link between creativity and mental illness:
Cognitive-neuroscientists are divided on this issue. On the one hand, research suggests that people with bipolar disorder and the healthy siblings of people with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, are more likely to have creative occupations. People with certain genetic risk factors for schizophrenia have been found to be more creative.
Research also shows that many eminent creators had difficult, unstable upbringings and painful early life experiences (parental loss, emotional violence, neglect, rejection or physical disability) and mental and emotional instability.
Yet it is difficult to prove a link between mental illness and creativity because the latter is difficult to define and map in the brain. One would have to monitor the brain to see the regions involved and scientifically prove the link.
Yet a scientific study involving fMRI brain scans (functional magnetic resonance imaging) managed to get as far as proving some connection between mental illness and creativity.
When you’re doing a complex task, a part of your brain called the precuneus will become less activated so you can focus. In people high in schizotypy (that is, behavior suggestive of schizophrenia but not diagnosable as such) genes and therefore traits, their precuneus is still firing away.
When the precuneus is activated, you have laser focus for one task. When you have no laser focus for one task, you instead absorb absolutely everything, making random connections other people might deem incomprehensible.
Positive schizotypy traits includes unusual perceptual experiences, impulsive nonconformity and magical beliefs, all which fuel creativity.
Inability to suppress precuneus activity helps people create new ideas through uncommon associations as well as encouraging openness to experience, fueling the creative process.
Thus, a creative person is able to take pieces of information and recombine them in novel or original ways.
And we can conclude that a person’s possibilities of becoming mentally I’ll and being creative may share the same origin, but that neither one causes the other.
People who are highly creative are intrinsically curious, exploratory, risk-taking, traits that often make them unconventional and difficult to fit in, thus making them more vulnerable to rejection. Rejection often breeds hardships that make you vulnerable to mental illnesses. Depression, for example.
But traits like innate (or developed) resilience and social support are what can help creative people not develop mental illness or treat it.
Which brings us to the last part of the article: Finding meaning.
In the quest for meaningfulness
There is something especially beautiful and important one can learn from this information. In a world where developing and suffering from a mental illness (which is extremely pervasive, as most people will suffer one throughout their lifespans) is so highly likely and so stigmatized, there is incredible power in seeing this silver lining: That it is highly likely to become more creative when suffering from mental illness.
And through creativity one can find purpose, meaning.
Artist Edvard Munch, thought to have had bipolar disorder, once wrote, according to Smithsonian magazine. “Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder … My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”
Mental illness is almost always accompanied by mood swings, which can inspire drama and give an emotional advantage to the artist. Drama, melancholy, reflectiveness and even mood swings can serve as inspiration, thereby converting a negative energy into a creation not only positive for you, but for the world, capable of transcending time and your own being.
Stability sounds “bland” for many artists, and although I’m by no means suggesting one should pursue becoming mentally ill or even glamorize it like some Tumblr pages once did (remember those depressive pictures? The photos of self-inflicted cuts? Ana and Mia? The personifications of Anorexia and Bulimia?), I do believe that being creative has a healing power beyond therapeutic for people struggling with mental illness. It has the power of bringing purpose and meaningfulness to their lives.
Various studies confirm creative endeavors can boost happiness, promote relaxation, well-being and personal growth. This has been seen in those who suffer from mental illness (who may
believe their creativity is a way to form a fantastical kind of world that lets them escape the stress and find some sense of control) and in mentally healthy individuals.
Turning adversity into creative growth
Being creative and expressing that through art can be a very soulful experience that ultimately brings meaning to your life. Research suggests that meaning in your life is more important for your (physical and mental) wellbeing than happiness. Happiness is transient and can’t shield one emotionally from adversity or promote emotional resilience. Having purpose lowers your risk of dementia and depression, it gives you a greater motivator to stay alive and take care of yourself. Having purpose is the most protective trait across the life span, as those with greater purpose were 15% less likely to die according to a study.
Some people care for others or for a cause (for example an NGO or a family member) because it gives their life purpose. It may not make them
happy as the path may be filled with setbacks, but it can be a very rewarding experience.
In “Eating Animals”, Jonathan Ford talks about how a hungry Russian woman during World War II refused to eat meat even if that meant she would die, because it went against what she considered meaningful and stated that meat wouldn’t have saved her life because “If nothing in life matters, there is nothing to save”. Now this is a extreme religious/ethical example, but it illustrates an important point.
Finding purpose means focusing on existential questions. Why do we want to keep living? What is a greater reason to live for, beyond pleasing ourselves? Beyond this place and this present time?
Finding purpose thereby means finding meaning in what precisely destroys us: Challenging, traumatic experiences. Abuse, neglect, even death. Everything that causes and promotes mental illness. Having purpose builds our emotional resilience and gives us
greater strength to persevere.
If we decide to write a book no one will read, follow an ethical philosophy that makes little impact, help a community plan its future without compensation, we feel fulfilled even when exhausted by this very thing, even when we endure significant frustrations throughout. We feel it is worth it because it’s meaningful. And this feeling is a much more powerful motivator than happiness.
From mindfulart, regarding finding meaningfulness in creativity:
“I feel as if I’m swallowed up in a different world, a different time — and I am engaged in an ancient practice of discovery and renewal. Dwelling in my imagination — or the Unknown, is a balm to my soul. I feel a part of something bigger, and therefore, I am more whole. I’m just where I need to be.”