Courtesy of Today's Science On File
All poets are mad," asserted English writer Robert Burton in his 1621 book, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton was exaggerating, of course. However, many people do believe that artists are more likely than others to be mentally ill. Many well-known artists, writers and musicians had a history of mental illness, in some cases leading to suicide.
Writers Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway, painter Vincent van Gogh, and musician Kurt Cobain all committed suicide.
Painters Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe, and musicians Cole Porter and Charles Mingus suffered from depression.
Is there actually a link between artistic creativity and mental illness? Most artists are not mentally ill, and most mentally ill people are not artists. However, several studies have suggested that artists are more likely than others to suffer from a class of mental illnesses called mood disorders.
Mood disorders include major depression and manic-depressive illness. Major depression is characterized by prolonged deep despair. Alternating periods of euphoria and despair characterize manic- depressive illness. Suicidal thoughts are common in people suffering from either of these disorders.
One of the first controlled studies of the creativity/mood disorder link was completed by University of Iowa psychiatrist Nancy C. Andreason. She compared 30 creative writers at the University of Iowa with 30 people holding jobs that were not inherently creative. She found that 80% of the writers said they had experienced either manic-depressive illness or major depression, while only 30% of the people in noncreative jobs said they had.
Andreason published her results in the October 1987 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.
In the late 1980s, Johns Hopkins University psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison also examined the link. She studied 47 painters, sculptors, playwrights and poets, all of whom had received high honors in their fields. Jamison found that 38% of the artists had been treated for a mood disorder. Only about 1% of people in the general population report manic- depressive episodes and about 5% report major depression at some point in their lives.
Skeptics have criticized both of these studies for two reasons. First, both researchers studied very few people. Studies with few people are more likely than large studies to include a group of people that does not accurately represent the population at large.
Second, both researchers interviewed the artists themselves or had the artists fill out questionnaires. It is possible that the interviewers were biased or that the artists misrepresented their true mental state.
A third study attempted to avoid the flaws of the previous research. For 10 years, Arnold M. Ludwig studied the lives of 1,004 men and women prominent in a variety of fields, including art, music, science, sports, politics and business.
He studied these people by reading 2,200 biographies.
Ludwig argued that biographers were less likely than psychiatrists to believe in advance that a person has a mental illness. This would make biographies less biased than psychiatric interviews. Biographers also typically draw information about their subjects from a variety of sources, which would make misrepresentations of mental state more difficult.
The Guilford Press published the results of Ludwig's study in 1995, in a book called The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy.
Ludwig concluded that "members of the artistic professions or creative arts as a whole suffer from more types of mental difficulties and do so over longer periods of their lives than members of the other professions."
He found that, as teen-agers, between 29% and 34% of future artists and musicians suffered from symptoms of mental illness. In comparison, only 3% to 9% of future scientists, athletes and businesspeople suffered similar symptoms.
As adults, between 59% and 77% of artists, writers and musicians suffered mental illness, while only 18% to 29% of the other professionals did. Ludwig's findings seemed to confirm the link between mental illness and the artistic temperament. But what is the nature of that link?
Some researchers, including Jamison, speculate that mood disorders allow people to think more creatively. In fact, one of the criteria for diagnosing mania reads "sharpened and unusually creative thinking."
People with mood disorders also experience a broad range of deep emotions. This combination of symptoms might lend itself to prolific artistic creativity.
Ludwig's studies provided some support for the theory that mood disorders can improve creativity. The artistic achievements of about 16% of the artists, writers and musicians he studied improved during times of mental upset.
Ludwig, however, believes other factors also contribute to the high rate of mood disorders among artists. He argues that people in many professions, including sports, politics and business, are extremely creative. He thinks that more people in artistic professions have mental illness because those professions are more accepting of mental illness. As a result, Ludwig speculates, people with mental illness are naturally drawn to artistic professions.
Still others believe that artistic occupations might by their nature magnify the symptoms of mental illness. Artists, musicians and writers often work alone. When they begin to feel upset or depressed, they would not have as much support and encouragement as do athletes, scientists and businesspeople who work with others.
Everyone agrees that treatments for mood disorders need to be improved. Between 60% and 80% of people who commit suicide suffered from a mood disorder. Many people with mood disorders medicate themselves with alcohol or illegal drugs. Despite the pain of mental illness, some people with mood disorders avoid treatments because of potential side effects, such as mental sluggishness.
These side effects can be particularly debilitating for people, such as artists, musicians and writers, whose work springs in large part from states of intellectual fluidity.
This article was originally printed in the December 1996 issue of Today's Science On File, which each month publishes for students the latest developments in science, medicine, technology and the environment.
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Copyright (c) 1996 Facts On File News Services. Reproduction for non-profit, noncommercial uses only.