The Frontal Cortex

Madness and Creativity

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.


  1. #1 agnostic
    April 29, 2008

    Schizotypals probably didn’t exist for most of pre-history, or in small societies — not because they couldn’t have, but just because “schizotypy” represents scoring very high or very low on multiple, independently sorting personality traits. Like, you have to be very low in Agreeableness (which leads to not trusting others and some paranoia), very high in Openness, and so on.

    Let’s say only the two traits above are involved, and that “very high” or “very low” means roughly 3 SD away from the mean, like “very tall” might mean 6’7. That puts them at the 99th percentile for each trait. Then these toy schizotypals have a frequency of 1 per 10,000. Most hunter-gatherer tribes or other pre-state societies start to fission when they group reaches about 100, so you would rarely see schizotypals in these societies.

    A society with 10,000 people (where you would expect to see a single schizotypal) is very recent, long after the transition to agriculture. I view the shaman more as the pre-state version of the hucksters or con-artist, not as a proto-Archimedes.

  2. #2 OftenWrongTed
    April 29, 2008

    This post made me recall an impressive summary on this subject by Kay Redfield Jamison in her book,”Touched With Fire”, isbn 0029160308. Notes on the James Family are of interest: “The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters.” Henry James, Sr.

  3. #3 Pistol Pete
    April 29, 2008

    Thanks for this excellent reflection on the tenuous connection between an altered mind and what it can (and can not) create.

  4. #4 HP
    April 29, 2008

    About 15 years ago or so, The Nation (of all places) published an impassioned interview/rant/memoir by jazz trumpeter Tom Harrell, about madness and creativity. Harrell is not only one of the foremost modern jazz trumpeters of the 70s and 80s, he’s also a full-blown paranoid schizophrenic, who’s managed to avoid long-term hospitalization due to having a psychiatrist father and an effective medication regime.

    The Nation article is well worth seeking out if you can find it. Unfortunately, the archive server at their website appears to be completely hosed at the moment. Long story short: “despite,” not “because.” The medication makes it very difficult to play an instrument and improvise creatively; not having medication makes it impossible.

  5. #5 Alan
    April 29, 2008

    “The witch doctor says he knows how to cure. There are spirits inside which are trying to get out. … Put a snakeskin on and take quinine from the bark of a tree. The quinine works. He doesn’t know he’s got the wrong theory of what happens. If I’m in the tribe and I’m sick, I go to the witch doctor. He knows more about it than anyone else.”

    –Richard P. Feynman

  6. #6 Tim Schafer
    April 30, 2008

    To Richard’s point — knowing what works, but maybe having and incorrect idea of why — the same thing is true with Oracles and other ritualistic decision or vision methods (dream quests, sweat lodges etc.) “Magical” things are perhaps more the doubt and openness that lets intuition and unconscious knowledge show the rational brain a thing or two.

  7. #7 Andrea Grant
    May 1, 2008

    Another thing to keep in mind is the possibility that strange “visions” could, in some cases, be massively compressed historical events. When I hear burning bush, I think freakish lightning storm or propensity for wildfires, and something like snake headed monster who turns things to stone naturally conjures up the idea of volcanoes. Especially if they are red snakes. Elizabeth Wayland Barber has written an excellent book on this kind of information compression in oral cultures (and how that process is shaped by our capacity for language): When They Severed the Earth From the Sky.

  8. #8 Doug Girard
    May 2, 2008

    On the subject of madness and creativity, I’d highly recommend Stephen A. Diamond’s seminal book, “Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil and Creativity”.

    – DOUG

  9. #9 Mike Johnson
    May 3, 2008

    Really interesting topic. I do suspect think it might be more difficult than it seems to separate out “despite” vs “because”.

    Nancy Andreasen had an interesting take on this and some interesting supporting data.

  10. I write for the Myartspace Blog and I just posted an entry concerning the link between mental illness and creativity. I’ve also been discussing the stereotypes concerning artists lately. It would be great to read your opinion on the topic.

  11. #11 Robert Eringer
    February 15, 2009

    Surreal Bounce: In Search of Creativity & Madness

  12. #12 Investment castings
    July 23, 2009

    like “very tall” might mean 6’7. That puts them at the 99th percentile for each trait.

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