Exploring the Connection Between Creativity and Mental Illness

A painting of a young girl sitting at the end of a tunnel.

Image: Shutterstock

From schizophrenia to depression to bipolar disorder, many a great artists were fraught with mental illness. Even the legendary Vincent Van Gogh was no stranger to psychiatric affliction. The troubled artist went as far as chopping off his own ear after a heated verbal altercation with his close friend, Paul Gauguin.

In 1888, Van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother, Theo, in which he openly described his struggle with mental illness:

“I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me. Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head… at times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse.”

Van Gogh passed away two years later due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Psychologists have suspected a link between creativity and mental illness for years now, but studies have only recently begun to confirm that connection. One such study, conducted by a team of researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, looked at 1.2 million Swedish psychiatric patients.

Researchers found that people working in artistic fields, such as dancers, photographers, and authors, were 8% more likely suffer from bipolar disorder. But perhaps most revelatory was the finding that writers were 121% more likely to have bipolar disorder, and almost 50% more likely to commit suicide.

But scientists now believe that they have found the gene responsible for this connection. In September of 2013, a team of neuroscientists at the University of Graz in Austria published a study comparing the brains of creative people and the brains of people who suffer from schizotypy.

Schizotypy is a less severe form of schizophrenia. Unlike people with schizophrenia, people with schizotypy can distinguish between reality from fiction. However, they may exhibit strange thoughts or behaviors, such preparing for an alien invasion.

The study involved using a magnetic resonance imaging machine to monitor which regions of the brain were active when participants were asked to come up with creative ways to use everyday objects. The results indicated that the right precuneus (the portion of the brain responsible for attention and focus) was active in participants with the highest levels of creativity and with the highest levels of schizotypy.

Put simply, the findings indicate creative people and people with schizotypy take in more details, and have trouble ignoring extraneous data. Their cognitive process doesn’t filter out unnecessary information. The over-stimulation can result in “madness” by causing the sufferer to obsess over every little detail.

Although researchers are yet to find a cure for mental illness, there are medications that can help ease the symptoms. There are also natural treatment options, such as meditation and counseling. To learn more about mental illness and creativity, click here.

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