Madness and Creativity

by Dr. Reeja Tharu on  September 15, 2008 at 5:12 PM Lifestyle and Wellness   - G J E 4

"Sanity is boring, and true genius may be born, of mood swings, and mania"- Ian Murray.


Madness and Creativity
Madness and Creativity

Sandy is a brilliant writer who has won several accolades both in her country and abroad. Each night she plays host to an invisible dwarf, lovingly referred   to as 'Theodore'. Sandy also hears voices regularly. She has christened them 'angel', 'little boy' and  'demon' according to their timbre and tone. She holds forth brain- tickling conversations with Theodore and 'the voices'. They provide Sandy with witty tit bits and prompt her to write more than she plans to!

Paying attention to details may be the benchmark of efficiency, but focusing on every footfall or dwelling on each syllable is likely to create mayhem in a person's mind, leading to compulsions of the obsessive kind. It often interferes with an individual's effort to live a normal life.

Man has survived all odds by ignoring what seems irrelevant to his immediate needs. This human trait, called by psychologists as 'latent inhibition', is intricately intertwined with survival instincts.  

Cats, rats, mice, pigeons, and various other animals too exhibit latent inhibition. Humans, however, have excelled at it. As the hallmark of success and sanity, latent inhibition has enabled man to sally forth in this bad, mad world. It is an indication of his adaptability, of his ability to retain what is good for him and ignore the rest.  But sadly, this seemingly significant trait has been discovered to stunt creativity.

Startling Studies
A team of Harvard researchers, including Shelley Carson, a psychologist, has discovered that students who scored low in latent inhibition have excellent creative skills compared to those who failed to pay attention to minor details.

These low scoring students also had a high level of IQ, indicating a correlation between intelligence and creativity.

Carson's studies revealed that a decreased level of latent inhibition and extreme flexibility in their thinking abilities predisposed some individuals to mental illness, while bestowing creative skills in others.

Low levels of latent inhibition may be just one of the biological basis for creativity. Carson claims that there are a lot more factors, including personality traits, social setup, family, and training.

On the Creative Trail
So why is it that some people go nuts when their brain is overworked while others use the same to be more productive?

An overwhelming flurry of new information may predispose some individuals to mental illness. But there has to be some difference between Jack the Ripper and John Nash!

Creativity, according to Carson, comes in steps. The first step is getting an insight, when ideas take shape. These ideas may be further enhanced by a force of unrelated stimuli.

The next step is the evaluation and edition of the information availed. This is definitely the most crucial phase, as it requires tremendous focus.

High intelligence, and a commendable working memory, may help a person to creatively juggle information and use it to serve a higher purpose. Carson and colleagues are seeking to find out how the creative folks succeed in adjusting their attention filters, during the different stages.

Manic Muses

William Wordsworth once said, "We Poets in our youth begin in gladness/ But thereof come in the end despondency and madness."

Anthony Storr, an honorary consultant psychiatrist at Oxford University believes that several writers and poets suffered from extreme mood swings and manic depression.

It appears that Dickens, Newton and Churchill suffered from psychiatric disorders. Dickens had a compulsion to keep himself always busy. He forced himself to write more than one book at a time. It was his way of handling the depressive demons at his door.

Several renowned writers, including Hemingway, Thomas Chatterton, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath ended up taking their own lives. There were several more who contemplated suicide 

Philosophers and mathematicians are not renowned for their ability to form long-term relationships, preferring to bond with the abstract. Many of them are known to be or to have been pathological loners. That explains why all-time greats like Newton, Descartes, Pascal and Hobbs did not enter into holy matrimony.

Dr Storr picked a recent study to prove his point. Among 47 award-winning writers and artists it was found that 30 per cent had signs of mental illness while half of the poets studied appeared in dire need of psychiatric treatment. Storr opines that the most inventive among us are at odds with themselves, as with the world.

Enduring Madness
There are many gifted individuals who are completely conscious of their predisposition to manic depression.They  would rather endure the depression and experience a 'creative high' than take medications to control the disease. It could be, perhaps, that they are able to sneak into a unseen world of  unabated imgination.Such individuals  include brilliant mathematicians like John Nash  and powerful performers like Robbie william.The reason?

Storr believes that these talented people derive rare insights and intensity, from their depression -related mood swings. He observes that blissful happiness is not conducive to inventiveness, and the motivation to churn out creative masterpieces ceases with contentment.  
The Missing Link
Several renowned thinkers, including Shakespeare, firmly believe that the genius and the insane are bonded in a close kinship. Recent studies have confirmed the connection. Professor Philip Thomas, of  the psychology department at Lancaster University says, "There has always been an overlap between people who have those gifts, or insights, and people who are identified as suffering from mental illnesses".  

Besides, there is an alarming increase in the rate of mental illness in the families of writers, poets and artists, suggesting common factors at work in the insane and in the creative.

Another condition that evokes interest is the Savant Syndrome, a rare condition, not medically recognized, where a developmental disorder, like autism, co-exists with expertise or brilliance in one or more area.


Discontent fuels evolution. It is this discontent interred in our bones that prompts us to seek greener pastures. And the search  continues......

Madness continues undeterred in this world possibly because of its associated benefits,creativity being one of them. Although severe forms of mental illness is known to disrupt creativity, several exceptionally talented individuals may, indeed, be mentally  ill.

Studies in this field  also indicate the possibility of  common genes that play a role in madness and creativity.This   futuristic musing could  hold the possibility of  a cure for mental illness.

Meanwhile, let us transcend the barriers of 'normalcy' and try to understand the intriguing 'madness' of unfettered minds. After all, they have a lot to offer!

Source: Medindia

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