From Beethoven to Vincent Van Gogh to Sylvia Plath, the path to creative greatness is strewn with men and women who are said to have suffered from mental health disorders. At least in popular culture, the line between creativity and mental illness has long been a fine one. As far back as Aristotle, it was believed that madness was connected with genius and that the “Muse” was strongest in those who were unstable.
Current researchers, including Shelley Carson, Ph.D., associate of the department of psychology and lecturer in extension at Harvard University, have a different take on the issue. While they have found a link between mental illness and creativity, scientists today believe that, for many creative minds, suffering is not a pre-requisite for genius.
Carson, a psychopathologist who has lectured on the topic, written blogs and several books for the general public, including “Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life” and (co-authored with Jefferson Prince, MD) “Almost Depressed: Is My (or My Loved One’s) Unhappiness a Problem,” spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about the link and also about the need for and benefits of increasing one’s own creativity.
Q: As a psychopathologist, how did you come to work with creativity?
A: I was fascinated by the number of highly creative individuals past and present who seemed to have had to deal with demons – mood disorders, alcoholism and psychosis – and that led me to the field of creativity research. My primary work is the interface between creativity, resilience and psychopathology.
I am currently working on a number of things, including some of the blocks to creativity, such as fear of failure and fear of success. One of my most recent models for creativity is called the Shared Vulnerability Model.
This model, supported by recent findings from neuroscience and molecular genetics, suggests that there are cognitive factors shared between people with certain types of psychopathology and highly creative individuals and that these cognitive factors will be expressed either as mental illness or as high creativity depending on the presence or absence of other genetic factors.
There are protective factors like high IQ or high working memory capacity that can help people with these shared
vulnerabilities to become more creative. On the other hand, if they have more risk factors, these shared vulnerabilities may express themselves as psychopathology.
Q: How much do environmental factors affect how these vulnerabilities express themselves?
A: Environmental factors definitely interact with genetic factors. That is one of the big areas of research right now, gene-environment interaction and it is amazing to see how some of our genes turn on or off depending upon environmental input.
Q: Some people believe that their mental illness, manic behavior specifically, allows them to be creative but you have found that you don’t have to be manic to be creative.
A: Absolutely not. In fact, research indicates that people in a full blown manic episode are not at all creative.
At Harvard Medical School, they found that first-degree relatives of people with bipolar disorder were more creative than both a control group and people who had bipolar disorder. The suggestion is that they inherited part but not all of the bipolar genotype. There are evolutionary arguments that this is why bipolar disorder and schizophrenia have remained in the gene pool in spite of being devastating illnesses. There are some aspects of this genotype that are beneficial to humanity in general.
So what we want to do for people who have bipolar or psychosis issues is to be able to emphasize the aspects of illness that are creative and de-emphasizes other symptoms.
Q: How do you see this research being put into practice?
A: I think the goals are twofold. The first would be to reduce human suffering without reducing a person’s ability to be creative. The drugs used for the types of mental illness that highly creative people are more likely to suffer from can deaden creativity, drugs like lithium, antipsychotics or even some anti-depressives. So the goal is to reduce suffering without interfering with creativity. That might mean they will have to suffer with some symptoms but we will be able to reduce enough symptoms to allow them to function and live a good life.
The second goal that I see is to understand the cognitive processes of highly creative individuals so that we can mimic those in the rest of us and hopefully enhance our own creativity. Creativity is our survival mechanism as a species and we all need to be more adaptive and more creative.
Q: And when you say adaptive, you are talking about creativity in the way of being able to think “outside the box,” come up with other ideas or alternatives?
A: A lot of people have a very narrow view of creativity. They think it means drawing a picture or writing a song or novel but creativity is a way of thinking about things. Creativity is the ability to take bits of information stored in your brain as memory or knowledge or skills and recombine them in original ways that produce ideas or products that are useful or adaptive.
We are creative all the time. My mission is to get people to enhance that natural ability.
Q: How do we increase creativity?
A: There are a number of ways I recommend. The first one is to never stop learning. A second thing is to generate creative ideas. For instance, make a list of things that annoy you and brainstorm what you can do, what does that annoying thing suggest to you? One example I give is about an engineer from Switzerland who had been hunting with his dog and came home covered with burrs. He took one of the burrs and became fascinated with it. He put it under the microscope and found all these little hooks on it and that was inspiration for Velcro. Instead of being annoyed, be fascinated.
Another thing I suggest is turning off electronic devices every day. Creative ideas come to you when you are in a de-focused attentional space. If you are constantly focusing on a screen, you can’t get into that state. One of the best ways to de-focus is to take a walk in nature where you can allow information to feed forward that normally would be filtered from conscious awareness. This is why a lot of creative corporations, Google, Facebook, IBM, have created beautiful atriums filled with trees to go walk and think.
Q: How can we take this into a therapy room?
A: Have clients take a creativity test as part of the diagnostic regimen. People who are more creative may need different types of drug combinations or different types of augmenting therapy, like art, music, or writing therapy, added to their treatment profile. What you want to do is increase protective factors and decrease risk factors in people who have these shared vulnerabilities.
For the therapist, another way to help people be more creative is to enhance your own creativity. People who enjoy art or sculpting or music outside of their practice report that they bring some of those creative skills into practice with them. Enhancing your own creative ability will make you a better therapist.
By Catherine Robertson Souter