I have been remiss in not citing more frequently the website Brain Pickings, the creation of Maria Popova. Ms. Popova (and her staff, if she has any) regularly provides delectable and provocative morsels for intellectual, um, mastication (sorry; that started out badly and ended worse).
For example, in the recent “The Relationship between Creativity and Mental Illness,” Ms. Popova (with the help of Nancy Andreason, author of THE CREATING BRAIN) debunks certain popular myths while illuminating a fascinating and complex subject. Popova writes:
One of the most interesting chapters in [Andreason’s] book deals with the correlation between creativity and mental illness, bringing scientific rigor to such classic anecdotal examples as those evidenced in Van Gogh’s letters or Sylvia Plath’s journals or Leo Tolstoy’s diary of depression or Virginia Woolf’s suicide note. Having long opposed the toxic “tortured genius” myth of creativity, I was instantly intrigued by Andreasen’s inquiry, the backdrop of which she paints elegantly:
“Did mental illness facilitate [these creators’] unique abilities, whether it be to play a concerto or to perceive a novel mathematical relationship? Or did mental illness impair their creativity after its initial meteoric burst in their twenties? Or is the relationship more complex than a simple one of cause and effect, in either direction?”
Andreason’s research makes it clear that, whatever correlations exist between creativity and mental disorders, there is no proof at all of causation. Rather, the cognitive and temperamental elements that lend themselves to creativity may also increase an individual’s vulnerability to mood disorders:
Many personality characteristics of creative people … make them more vulnerable, including openness to new experiences, a tolerance for ambiguity, and an approach to life and the world that is relatively free of preconceptions. This flexibility permits them to perceive things in a fresh and novel way, which is an important basis for creativity. But it also means that their inner world is complex, ambiguous, and filled with shades of gray rather than black and white. It is a world filled with many questions and few easy answers. While less creative people can quickly respond to situations based on what they have been told by people in authority — parents, teachers, pastors, rabbis, or priests — the creative person lives in a more fluid and nebulous world. He or she may have to confront criticism or rejection for being too questioning, or too unconventional. Such traits can lead to feelings of depression or social alienation. A highly original person may seem odd or strange to others. Too much openness means living on the edge. Sometimes the person may drop over the edge… into depression, mania, or perhaps schizophrenia.
Thinking outside the box has its perils, as Andreason explains:
Creative ideas probably occur as part of a potentially dangerous mental process, when associations in the brain are flying freely during unconscious mental states — how thoughts must become momentarily disorganized prior to organizing. Such a process is very similar to that which occurs during psychotic states of mania, depression, or schizophrenia. In fact, the great Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who gave schizophrenia its name, described a “loosening of associations” as its most characteristic feature: “Of the thousands of associative threads that guide our thinking, this disease seems to interrupt, quite haphazardly, sometimes single threads, sometimes a whole group, and sometimes whole segments of them.”
Part of the problem, says Andreason, is a mismatch between our perceptual apparatus (our five senses) and the brain that has to sort out and make sense of the perceptions:
All human beings (and their brains) have to cope with the fact that their five senses gather more information than even the magnificent human brain is able to process. To put this another way: we need to be able to ignore a lot of what is happening around us — the smell of pizza baking, the sound of the cat meowing, or the sight of birds flying outside the window — if we are going to focus our attention and concentrate on what we are doing...
Creative types may feel more besieged by such distractions, which is why they often resort to drastic measures to keep their artistic focus, measures which make them appear eccentric, to say the least:
Creative people, Andreasen notes, can be more easily overwhelmed by stimuli and become distracted. Some of the writers in her study, upon realizing they had a tendency to be too sociable, employed various strategies for keeping themselves isolated from human contact for sizable stretches of time in order to create. (Victor Hugo famously locked away all his clothes to avoid the temptation of going out while completing The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1830, which he wrote at his desk wearing nothing but a large gray shawl.) And yet for all its capacity to overwhelm, the creative mind remains above all a spectacular blessing…
Graciously, Ms. Popova gives Ms. Andreason the last word:
Our ability to use our brains to get “outside” our relatively limited personal perspectives and circumstances, and to see something other than the “objective” world, is a powerful gift. Many people fail to realize that they even have this gift, and most who do rarely use it.
Again, my apologies for neglecting Brain Pickings; it's a great site and well worth checking out.