Is madness the price for creative genius?

September 25, 1990|By Gerri Kobren

Genius and Madness: The two have been linked in the popular mind since man began to think about the nature of creativity. There was something mystical about those minds that seemed to turn inward and then expand outward to the cosmos, scorning the interests and pursuits of ordinary people.

Indeed, there's something to the mythology, according to modern experts.

A "disproportionate number of creative people" have suffered from depression or manic depression, according to Dr. J. Raymond DePaulo Jr., director of the Center for Affective Disorders at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Why that's so is not known, he says.

Nevertheless, the list of poets, musicians and artists believed to have had these disorders -- Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Allan Poe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, George Friderick Handel, Robert Schumann, Gustav Mahler, Peter Tschaikovsky -- is too long for mere coincidence.

Studies of living artists and writers also show an association between these abnormal mental states and creativity.

When psychologist Kay Jamison, associate professor of psychiatry at Hopkins, surveyed poets, playwrights, novelists, artists and biographers in England, she found that one-third of the poets and one-fourth of the playwrights and novelists had been treated with anti-depressive drugs.

She also found that almost all of them -- except the biographers -- reported their most creative periods were characterized by "increases in enthusiasm, energy, self-confidence, speed of mental association, fluency of thoughts, elevated mood and a strong sense of well-being."

These are also some of the symptoms of mania, or of "hypomania," which is a milder form of the disorder.

That's not to say you have to be depressed or manic to be creative; more than half the people in Dr. Jamison's sample had not had treatment -- suggesting either that they weren't sick or didn't think they were.

And, according to Dr. DePaulo, "Severe depression and severe mania don't help creativity at all. When they are severely ill, they don't produce good stuff."

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