It is my privilege to introduce Nicole Mackey to you today for this excellent guest post. She blogs at

Creativity and Mental Illness

“We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched” Lord Byron

I am a writer. I also have bipolar disorder. I cannot help but wonder if there is a connection. Throughout the ages, people have equated creative genius with mental illness. The myth of the tortured artist has endured for centuries. The list of famous creatives who suffered from mental illness is extensive:

  • Beethoven— bipolar disorder
  • Marlon Brando— depression
  • Winston Churchill— bipolar disorder
  • Robin Williams— depression
  • Kurt Cobain— ADD and bipolar disorder
  • Charles Dickens— depression
  • Patty Duke— bipolar disorder
  • Carrie Fisher— bipolar disorder
  • Linda Hamilton— bipolar disorder
  • Hemmingway— depression and suicide
  • Billy Joel— depression and suicide
  • Catherine Zeta-Jones— bipolar II
  • Heath Ledger— drug abuse and depression
  • Tolstoy— depression
  • Van Gogh— bipolar

Creativity and Mental Illness

This is just a fraction. Up until now, scientists could find no correlation between the two. But now two separate studies have turned up a connection.

Simon Kyaga did a study of approximately 1.2 million people, and discovered that with the exception of bi-polar disorder (which showed an 8% increase) people in the sciences and arts were no more likely to have a mental illness than the general population.
What he did discover was that first-degree relatives, such as siblings, of an individual with mental illness were far more likely to be engaged in the creative professions. This suggests the possibility that the same genetic markers that cause mental illness in one individual, may cause greater creativity in another.
Relatives of schizophrenics tend to have more schizotypal characteristics. This is not schizophrenia. Instead, it refers to a collection of personality traits, both positive and negative. People with these traits tend to self-identify as creative.
Another connnection shows itself in the working of the brain of creative types as compared to the schizotypal and schizophrenics. It involves the precuneus, which allows the brain to suppress unnecessary cognitive activity while focusing on a task. Creatives, as well as those related to or suffering from schizophrenia, cannot suppress this activity. This may allow them to make unusual connections between unrelated things, a trait of creative thinking.
A more recent study done in Iceland, may show an even stronger connection. Published in Nature Neuroscience, this study seems to indicate a 25% higher occurrence of the genetic markers for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder in those who are in the creative professions.

Kari Steffanson believes his study of 86000 Icelanders shows evidence of a “common biology for some mental illnesses and creativity.” He admits that at this point the link is weak, but present nonetheless.
Steffanson says “I think these results support the old concept of the mad genius. Creativity is a quality that has given us Mozart, Bach, Van Gogh. It’s a quality that is very important for our society. But it comes at a risk to the individual, and 1% of the population pays the price for it.” That 1% being those with a serious mental illness, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
In “Mental Illness and Creativity: A Neurological Look at the Tortured Artist” Adrienne Sussman looks at the possible connection and then posits an interesting question: Are we medicating genius away? Many patients feel their medication leaves them feeling “flat” and “colorless.” Edvard Munch said “[My troubles] are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and it [treatment] would destroy my art. I want to keep those sufferings.” In my experience, this is one of the primary reasons patients stop their medication. They feel it suppresses their creativity.
It is an important question to address, whether or not we are robbing patients of their creativity through current treatments. But it is one that probably won’t have a definitive answer until science can more thoroughly explain the link between creativity and mental illness. For while the correlation is becoming more clear, the mechanism is still far from understood. Further research is necessary. In the mean time, patients should be supported and encouraged to express themselves creatively and medical professionals should help them find a course of treatment that doesn’t hinder their gift.
–Nicole Mackey

Please check out Nicole’s blog, where she has some pretty cool stuff.


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