Plato once noted that "creativity is a divine madness, a gift from gods.” Romantic notions of the link between mental illness and creativity still appear prominently in popular culture. But ever since scientists started formally investigating the link, there has been intense debate. Some of the most highly cited studies on the topic have been criticized on the grounds that they involve highly specialized samples with weak and inconsistent methodologies and a strong dependence on subjective and anecdotal accounts.
What has become much clearer, however, is that there is a real link between creativity and a number of traits and characteristics that are associated with mental illness. Once we leave the narrowed confines of the clinical setting and enter the larger general population, we see that mental disorders are far from categorical. Every single healthy human being lies somewhere on every psychopathology spectrum (e.g., schizophrenia, autism, mood disorders). What's more, we each show substantial fluctuations on each of these dimensions each day, and across our lifespan.
A major issue in attempting to scientifically study the link between the various dimensions of psychopathology and creativity is the outcome measure. What should we be predicting? Because here's the thing: Creativity also lies on a spectrum, ranging from the everyday creative cognition that allows us to generate new ideas, possibilities, and solutions to a problem, to the real-world creative achievement seen in publicly recognized domains across the arts, humanities, and sciences. Therefore, the link to psychopathology spectrum disorders may differ depending on the outcome.
Enter a new study by Darya Zabelina, David Condon, and Mark Beeman. They examined whether levels of psychopathology in a healthy non-clinical sample are associated with creative cognition and real-world creative achievement among a group of 100 participants, aged 18-30. None had been hospitalized for psychiatric or neurological reasons, and none abused alcohol or drugs.
The researchers measured creative cognition by having participants imagine hypothetical scenarios (e.g., "What problems may arise from being able to walk on air?") and having them create pictures out of incomplete figures. They measured real-life creative achievement by having participants catalogue their prior creative achievements across ten creative domains (visual art, music, dance, architectural design, creative writing, humor, inventions, scientific discovery, theater and film, and culinary arts). For example, in the music domain, questions ranged from “I have no training or recognized talent in this area” to “My compositions have been critiqued in a national publication”.
They found that both real-world creative achievement and creative cognition (as rated by four independent judges) were significantly associated with two personality traits: psychoticism and hypomania. These findings remained even after taking into account prior academic achievement test scores.
Psychoticism is characterized by impulsivity, sensation-seeking, and proneness to psychosis. Many of the items on the psychoticism scale measure oddness of thought and behavior, such as "Other people seem to think my behavior is weird", "My thoughts are strange and unpredictable", and "My thoughts often don't make sense to others." In a clinical setting, extremely high levels of psychoticism may be cause for a diagnosis of mental illness, but this finding suggests that in the normally varying general population, there is an association between these characteristics and real-world creative achievement.
Creativity was also associated with hypomania, a mood state characterized by high energy levels, rapid mood fluctuations, and racing thoughts. Some items on the hypomania scale include “I am frequently in such high spirits that I can’t concentrate on any one thing for too long”, "I have such a wide range of interests that I often don't know what to do next", and "Sometimes ideas and insights come to me so fast that I cannot express them all". Again, in a clinical setting, extreme levels of this trait may require rehabilitation. But this finding (and the findings of prior studies) suggests that in the general population hypomania is associated with creative achievement.
Neither creative cognition nor creative achievement were associated with depression, however. This finding is consistent with prior research showing no relationship between measures of anxiety, depression, and social anxiety and creative achievement or creative cognition. It appears that in the general population, there is just no level of depression that is associated with creativity. Instead, the real links to creativity seem to lie in the characteristics associated with hypomania and psychoticism.
Interestingly, creative cognition was no longer associated with real-world creative achievement, psychoticism or hypomania when scoring the test using the method recommended in the testing manual. The manual suggests calculating a weighted average of fluency (sheer number of responses) and originality (uniqueness of responses relative to the rest of the participants). When calculated this way, there was an association with standardized academic test performance, but there was no relationship with real-life creative achievement. In contrast, when the responses on the creative cognition test were rated by independent judges, there was an association with real-life creative achievement, but there was no relationship to performance on standardized academic tests.
These findings make sense. In order to quickly generate a large number of original responses requires high levels of cognitive control, including the ability to inhibit irrelevant thoughts, quickly update the current contents of working memory, and flexibly switch attention from one aspect of the problem to another. Those with higher levels of cognitive control do tend to score higher on IQ tests, tend to more quickly generate a larger number of original responses on tests of creative cognition, and also tend to perform better on standardized tests of academic achievement. But as this study suggests, they do not tend to have more real-world creative accomplishments.
Real-world creative achievement is influenced by many factors operating on a much longer timescale, including motivation, inspiration, drive, persistence, love, opportunity, social support, and resources. In the long-run, it's the quality of creativity that is more conducive to real-world creative achievement than the ability to quickly come up with responses in an artificial, laboratory setting, with a clock counting down and a stranger telling you to "Be creative!".
It also makes sense that psychopathology spectrum traits were not associated with the sheer fluency and originality of creative cognition. Many mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are associated with reduced cognitive control. Zabelina and colleagues have found in their research that while on-the-spot, timed creative cognition is associated with the ability to focus attention, real-life creative achievement is associated with the ability to broaden attention and have a "leaky" mental filter. In other words, perhaps the very same characteristics that may hinder performance on IQ tests and standardized academic tests (e.g., broad attention, impulsivity, daydreaming, and fantasy-proneness) are the very same characteristics that increase the chances of real-life creative achievement. Further research should investigate this intriguing possibility.
Of course, like any study, there are limitations. The size of the sample was fairly small, the dimensional measures of psychopathology and creative achievement were self-report, and the age ranges of the participants were limited. So this is definitely not the last word. An open and interesting question are the various protective factors that can increase the probability that psychopathology is productively channeled into creativity, instead of turning into a debilitating disorder. Such protective factors can include cognitive variables such as baseline levels of intelligence and cognitive control (too low, and the person high on various psychopathology spectrums may become overwhelmed with the influx of cognitions, emotions, and sensations), psychological resources such as motivation and grit, and environmental variables such as caring support and resources.
Nevertheless, these results do support the idea that various characteristics associated with mental illness (e.g., high energy, racing thoughts, unusual ideas and behavior, impulsivity) increase the probability of ideas being judged by others as creative as well as real-world creative achievement. The findings also lend support to the idea that various forms of psychopathology (e.g., schizophrenia) remain in our gene pool because they may provide creative benefits to people with milder versions of the disorders and the relatives of those with full-blown mental illness.
These are all interesting hypotheses and can scientifically be tested. While we must be careful not to romanticize mental illness (mental illness is neither sufficient nor necessary for creativity), hopefully someday we will be able to get a more accurate picture of the role of non-clinical levels of psychopathology on creative production, thereby broadening our conceptualization of mental disorders more generally and increasing our appreciation of human diversity.
© 2014 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved.
image credit: woman writing by valerie hardy