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Are creative people more prone to psychological distress or is the ‘mad genius’ a myth?

The idea of a common biological cause for the association between psychological distress and creativity is clearly an attractive one. Gioia De Antoniis/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Are creative people more prone to psychological distress or is the ‘mad genius’ a myth?

The idea of a common biological cause for the association between psychological distress and creativity is clearly an attractive one. Gioia De Antoniis/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

A new theory for why neurotic unhappiness and creativity are often found in the same person suggests the link results from the fact that the same part of the brain is responsible for both.

The theory, published today, holds that there are parts of the brain that control the number of spontaneous thoughts someone has, and how much they daydream and let their minds wander. People differ in the activity of these brain regions, so they experience a different number of spontaneous thoughts.

These same brain regions are also important for controlling the negativity of thoughts. Some spontaneous thoughts will thus be more negative in tone, turning into a negative thinking style, such as rumination or worry. And these negative thinking styles make people vulnerable to psychological distress. But other thoughts will be more reflective and imaginative, increasing the chances of creative outcomes.

The idea of a common biological cause for the association between psychological distress and creativity is attractive. But is the assumption that creative people are more neurotic actually true? Are there really “mad geniuses” in our midst?

A headache for researchers

That psychological distress and creativity go hand in hand is one of the many common lay ideas about human psychology. The link has been highlighted in revelations of the personal battles of artists, writers, musicians and other people pursing creative endeavours.

Some, such as the stories of pianist David Helfgott (Shine, 1996) and mathematician John Nash (A Beautiful Mind, 2001), have even captured Hollywood’s imagination, fuelling the idea of the link. But what about scientific evidence?

To investigate, researchers have typically either compared the psychological distress of people in creative and non-creative professions, or compared the creativity of people with and without psychological distress.

Researchers have typically either compared the psychological distress of people in creative and non-creative professions, or compared the creativity of people with and without psychological distress. B Rosen/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Unfortunately, they’ve used different methods to measure creativity as well as psychological distress. For example, to measure the latter, studies may use interviews to diagnose mental disorders or questionnaires to assess personality traits such as neuroticism.

From the beginning

Research on psychological distress and creativity began in the 1980s and early studies in the field have often been cited to support a link. But much of this work has recently been criticised for using small and specialised samples of people and for a lack of scientifically rigorous methodology.

Criticisms have also been levelled at the field of “mad genius” research as a whole. The use of different measures of psychological distress and creativity in different studies, for instance, makes it difficult to compare studies and get a fuller picture.

It has been suggested that this inconsistency of measures has contributed to contradictory findings. Neuroticism has been shown to be linked to creativity in one study, for instance, but not in another that used a different measure of creativity.

Indeed, the whole field has been criticised for the absence of a good measure for creativity, and for using dubious methods to assess psychological distress. But the absence of quality evidence of a link is not evidence for the absence of that link.

Some relief

Recently, there have been some attempts to look at the literature on psychological distress and creativity as a whole to try to find patterns across studies (granted the criticisms noted above).

One critical review paper, for instance, suggested an association between bipolar disorder and creativity. Another suggested creativity is linked with bipolar disorder as well as schizotypy (a personality trait related to schizophrenia).

Notably, these research papers are only qualitative reviews. They summarise patterns of associations but the size of associations they’ve found (between bipolar disorder and creativity, for instance) are not estimated.

Some recent papers have suggested links between creativity and bipolar disorder. Surian Soosay/Flickr, CC BY

Quantitative reviews such as meta-analyses can estimate the size of such associations because they’re based on multiple studies. And one meta-analysis has shown neuroticism is only trivially associated with creativity. Sadly, such meta-analyses are generally lacking in the field.

U-shaped you

The good news is that large-scale studies with more rigorous methodology have recently started to be undertaken. One 2011 study, for instance, found that people with bipolar disorder were more likely to work in creative occupations – scientific or artistic – than people without the disorder. And those with schizophrenia were similarly found to be more likely to work in an artistic occupation.

Another large study in 2013 found a greater likelihood of bipolar disorder among people in creative professions compared to matched groups. But people in creative professions were not more likely to be diagnosed with other disorders, such as schizophrenia, depression and anxiety disorders.

Researchers contend that one of the more consistent findings in the field is that people with “a small dose” of psychological distress might actually be more creative than people without psychological distress and people with extreme levels of such distress. This has been been described as a U-shaped relationship.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, the state of this field of psychological research makes it difficult to provide a definitive answer to the question of whether there really is a link between psychological distress and creativity. All we can say for now is that the more recent research suggests a link between creativity and certain forms of psychological distress – possibly in small doses.