Creativity is a fascinating and important subject for anyone to study. Understanding how people tap into their creative powers and why some are better than others is quite interesting. Nancy C. Andreasen is a very qualified person to address this topic. In addition to a PhD in English literature, she later switched careers and earned an MD with a residency in psychiatry. In the current edition of The Atlantic, Andreasen writes on “Secrets of the Creative Brain” (July/August 2014, pp. 62–75). Not only do I highly recommend the article to you, but I have been devoting several of my blog posts to various aspects of it.
A major theme of Andreasen’s article is the link between mental illness and creativity, and a fascinating link it is. It seems that the very talents and giftedness that predispose a person to prodigious creative ability may also predispose that person to a susceptibility to emotional and mental struggles, even to the point of neuroses and psychoses.
Of course, this does not mean that just because you are creative you are mentally ill. The linkage speaks more broadly to the fact that as people, we are not a collection of ones and zeroes, on and off switches. Rather, we are all uniquely cast upon an immense array of continuums of every possible human trait and nuance. That is all part of the amazingly complex way in which we are designed.
The important thing is to recognize the linkage and that it manifests to different degrees depending on the person. The linkage is an amazing one with many implications for mental illness, creativity, brain development, and neuroscience. To that point, Andreasen describes her increasingly strong attraction to exploring this linkage:
“I have spent much of my career focusing on the neuroscience of mental illness, but in recent decades I’ve also focused on what we might call the science of genius, trying to discern what combination of elements tends to produce particularly creative brains. What, in short, is the essence of creativity? Over the course of my life, I’ve kept coming back to two more-specific questions: What differences in nature and nurture can explain why some people suffer from mental illness and some do not? And why are so many of the world’s most creative minds among the most afflicted?” (p. 64)
I have known two separate people who have manifested this severe struggle involving creativity and mental illness. Dave was my best friend in high school and college. He was extremely creative. Debbie was my sister-in-law. She too was extremely creative. She was a musician who earned a degree in music therapy. Tragically, in both Dave’s and Debbie’s cases, their lives ended in suicide. People within Dave’s circle, as well as people within Debbie’s circle, could see the struggles and the signs. Yet in spite of everyone’s most valiant, caring, and serious attempts, their lives ended tragically young.
The linkage is real. Exactly how it all works, we still have much to learn. I am grateful for what Andreasen has accomplished so far. And there is much more I am certain we shall learn.