The Times has an interesting review of two new books that discuss the oft cited link between mental illness and artistic creativity. It’s all too easy to indulge in cliched overgeneralizations about the thin line separating madness and genius, but the reality is that true mental illness is rarely conducive to acts of creation. Virginia Woolf, for instance, couldn’t write when she was experiencing one of her “episodes”: the onset of depression was “like a death,” she wrote. Nevertheless, as Woolf’s journals make clear, her writing was still profoundly influenced by her mental illness. Here is I how describe Woolf in my book:
Woolf’s writing style was deeply rooted in her own experience of the brain. She was mentally ill. All her life, she suffered from periodic nervous breakdowns, those horrible moments when her depression became suffocating. As a result, Woolf lived in fear of her own mind, exquisitely sensitive to its fevered “vibrations.” Introspection was her only medicine. “My own psychology interests me,” she confessed to her journal. “I intend to keep full notes of my ups and downs for my private information. And thus objectified, the pain and shame become at once much less. When all else failed, she used her sardonic humor to blunt the pain: “I feel my brains, like a pear, to see if it’s ripe; it will be exquisite by September.” And while she complained to E.M. Forster and others about her doctors and their syrups, about the pain and torpor of being forced to lie in bed, she also acknowledged the strange utility of her illness. Her incurable madness–this “whirring of wings in the brain”–was, in some ways, strangely transcendental: “Not that I haven’t picked up something from insanities and all the rest. Indeed, I suspect they’ve done instead of religion.”
Woolf never recovered. Her constant state of reflection, her wariness for hints of the return of her devastating depression, left an indelible scar on her writing. “Nerves” is one of her favorite words. Its medical varieties–neurosis, neurasthenia, nervous breakdown, neuroasthenic–continually enter her prose, their sharp, scientific pang contradicting the suppleness of her character’s internal soliloquies. In Woolf’s diary, notes on form were always interwoven with comments on headaches.
In other words, Woolf’s mental illness forced her to think about her mind, which fueled her modernist writing style. But the illness itself was an obstacle: she wrote in spite of it, not because of it.
That said, there are some interesting connections between schizotypal individuals – schizotypy is a mental condition that resembles schizophrenia, albeit with far less severe symptoms – and creativity, at least as measured in the psychology lab. Consider this study, which looked at schizotypy and insight problem solving. (Solving such problems requires people to “restructure the problem space,” which is a genre of creative thought.) The researchers found that individuals with a high degree of schizotypy show better performance on a set of insight problems relative to individuals with low schizotypy, but not on a set of incremental problems that required focused goal-related thinking. In other words, a little bit of madness did lead to a more creative problem-solving process. (Other studies have linked schizotypy to a right-hemisphere bias…)
And then there’s the audacious hypothesis of Robert Sapolsky, who argues that one of the sources of modern religion is schizotypy. (Personally, I’ve always found the obsessive-compulsive disorder explanation for religion a little more convincing. Martin Luther was clearly OCD – that’s why he liked to wash his hands so much. Or look at Leviticus: that Biblical book contains one bizarre rule after another.) Anyways, here is Sapolsky, arguing that you have to be the right kind of crazy in order to see a burning bush, or believe that the loud voice in your head is actually the voice of God:
What you find with schizotypals is what is called metamagical thinking, a very strong interest in new-age beliefs, science fiction, fantasy, religion, but in a very concrete, literal form, a very fundamentalist style. Somebody walking on water is not a metaphor. Somebody rising from the dead is not a metaphor; this is reported, literal fact.
Now we have to ask our evolutionary question: “Who are the schizotypals throughout 99% of human history?” And in the 1930s, decades before the word “schizotypal” even existed, anthropologists already had the answer.
It’s the shamans. It’s the medicine men. It’s the medicine women. It’s the witch doctors. In the 1930s an anthropologist named Paul Radin first described it as “shamans being half mad,” shamans being “healed madmen.” This fits exactly. It’s the shamans who are moving separate from everyone else, living alone, who talk with the dead, who speak in tongues, who go out with the full moon and turn into a hyena overnight, and that sort of stuff. It’s the shamans who have all this metamagical thinking.