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Mad Creative: Theories of the Relationships Between Creativity and Psychopathology

Stephanie Stine

In clinical psychology, the common consensus is that those who stray markedly and consistently from the norm should be labeled mentally ill and treated accordingly. In many ways this is a reasonable belief, considering that extreme individual uniqueness can make matters quite difficult for an individual and his or her relatives. However, this approach makes two critical assumptions. First, it assumes that experiencing any difficulty at all, no matter what the cause or end, is unacceptable. Second, it assumes that extreme difference itself is unacceptable and that the best way to live life, more or less, is as the majority does. Some psychologists have been rejecting these assumptions, arguing that mental illnesses are not discrete and defined diseases; rather, they are points on continuous spectrums. These spectrums reflect a social diversity that allows for varied ways of perceiving and experiencing the world (Nettle, 2001). For some, being on the extremes of this spectrum facilitates creativity. This paper will review definitions of creativity and some of the studies that attempt to understand the connection between creativity and psychopathology. Specifically, it will explore the ways that creativity appears in schizotypy, affective disorders, and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Finally, we will explore how the overlap between psychopathology and creativity affirms God’s redemptive work in the world.

One of the reasons creativity research is so difficult is that there is no adequate, agreed-upon definition of creativity (Wolfe, 2010; Nettle, 2006). Ludwig (1989) describes three dimensions of creativity, including an attribute of the person (personality), a process (thinking), and the property of the product (creative ability). Holt (2011) claims that creativity is usually defined as an “adaptive novelty.” However, neither of these definitions suffice, since they do not encompass ideas of aesthetic pleasantries, remoteness, idiosyncrasy or bizarreness, which are all characteristics that are usually associated with creativity. Many researchers define creativity by looking to the biographies of those who in retrospect are considered creative geniuses, such as the composer Schumann (i.e., Nettle, 2001). However, theorists like Jamison (1999) argue that popularity of the creative product is not a good definition of creativity either, because “popularity” does not necessitate any of the aforementioned characteristics of creativity. Furthermore, biographies present other methodological difficulties because self-reflections and the accounts of others may be biased or inaccurate (highly creative people interpret and express emotions and physical reactions more dramatically than the majority of people do).

Although there is no standard definition, there are some consistent and normative properties of creativity, which can help determine its basic structure. Studies that examined living examples of highly creative people found that the characteristics frequently used to describe these people included: skeptical, aloof, radical, self-sufficient, independent, bohemian, often introverted and usually more open to experience (Claridge, 1988). Furthermore, creative people score highly on openness (Feist, 1998) and are more curious (Costa & McCrae, 1992, p. 15 as cited in Holt, 2011). One of the biggest differences between creative and mentally ill groups is that creative people do not display the flattened affect and loss of volition typical of mental illnesses (Nettle, 2006).

Biographical research done by Ludwig (1995) found that at least 50% of the eminent figures in fields such as architecture, art, sports, musical composition and performance, social sciences, theater, non-fiction, fiction, and poetry writing could be considered mentally ill. Other retrospective studies found that there is a significant amount of schizophrenia, paranoia, depression, hypomania, manic-depression, cyclothymia, schizoaffective illness, borderline personality disorder, psychopathy, neurosis, hysteria, megalomania, narcissism, compulsions, and hypochondria in gifted individuals (Claridge, 1997). To bolster this information, several correlational studies have also found that there is a link between psychopathology and creativity (Jamison, 1994; Nettle, 2006; Wolfe, 2010). Based on these multiple methodologies, it seems that various types of psychopathology are conducive to creative behaviors.

There are several theories on how people become creative, including the idea that creative people are “ambicognitive.” This means that individuals are able to shift quickly between focused and defocused attentional states (Brod, 1997). It is also very likely that what connects creativity to madness is that both are characterized by divergent or chaotic thinking styles[1] (Claridge, 1998; Nettle, 2006). Although there is a relatively firm consensus on this point, some researchers are not convinced. Burch and Pavelis (2005) theorize, based upon the result of one of their divergent thinking tests, that many people may have certain ideas they are unwilling to express, due to social taboos. In effect, those who are willing to express these taboo ideas are viewed as creative even though others have come up with the same ideas. This interpretation of data actually supports Eysenck’s (1993) theory, namely that inhibition is part of the link between psychopathology and creativity. Those who are less inhibited are less likely to suppress thoughts and ideas, and therefore have a greater data base to draw from when being creative. Most likely, both a lack of inhibition and thought process style play a role in the phenomenon.

While it seems undeniable that the relationship exists, there remains confusion about the extent, direction, and pattern of the relationship. There is support for the idea that there are different types of creativity associated with various kinds of mental illness. For example, creative scientists seem to have lower levels of psychopathology (lower scores of positive schizotypy, anxiety, and asocial schizotypy) than all other creative populations (Wolfe, 2010). Further, not all forms of psychopathology are conducive to creativity. Brod (1997) theorized that creativity is related to milder psychopathology rather than extreme forms of psychosis. Some theorists have found evidence that ego strength[2] (Claridge et al., 1996) and high IQ (Claridge, 1988; Burch & Pavelis et al., 2005) ward off the more extreme forms of psychosis. This information indicates that we must be particular when making claims about how creativity and psychopathology interact. There cannot be one explanation. Rather, there are several explanations that correlate with particular types of people with unique talents.

Schizotypy and Creativity

One of the pathologies that overlaps very strongly with creativity is schizotypy.[3] One study found that in creativity research, schizotypy might be seen as a dimension of creativity. However, different forms of schizotypy determine whether or not creativity is expressed (Claridge & McDonald, 2009). In a study that examined artists and non-artists, differences in scores on unusual experiences and impulsive nonconformity suggest that positive schizotypy (as opposed to negative) contribute to creativity.[4]

When certain aspects of expressed schizotypy are more pronounced, creativity is expressed differently. For example, positive schizotypy is associated with participation in the arts and remote word associations, but not with tests that involve the selection of appropriate responses. Other studies suggest that positive schizotypy is a factor of artistic creativity, but negative schizotypy is a factor in mathematical creativity (Holt, 2011; Nettle, 2006). Furthermore, visual artists score higher on cognitive disorganization, while non-artists score higher on agreeableness (Burch & Pavelis et al., 2005). Although this is only a very brief review of some of the literature on schizotypy and creativity (and it is clear that the relationship is complex and multilayered) it seems that in general it might be assumed that the unique thinking styles of individuals with schizotypy are central to creativity.

Creativity and Autism

It has been mentioned that higher IQs help defend individuals against extreme psychosis, and thus having a lower IQ tends to eliminate the possibility of creativity being contemporaneous with psychopathology (Claridge, 1988; Burch & Pavelis et al., 2005). The exception to this general rule is individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Although ASD individuals tend to have one area of expertise in which they are highly skilled, they also tend to be mentally underdeveloped in most other areas, leaving them with lower IQs. Despite this, in their areas of expertise, they are often considered highly creative.

ASD is, in part, characterized by a unique learning style (Frith, 2003) and excellent attention to detail (O’Riordan et al., 2001 as cited in Happé & Frith, 2009). It is widely acknowledged that ASD individuals have difficulty recognizing and representing mental states (Frith, 2003). In other words, ASD people have a hard time understanding the thoughts and emotions of others. They also tend to be very literal and lack comprehension of abstraction due to left brain dysfunction and right brain compensation, which leads to a predilection for literal, non-symbolic skills (Sacks, 2007, pp. 314-315 as cited in Happé & Frith, 2009).

Some of the common skills of ASD individuals, such as being able to count vast quantities of objects very quickly, would probably not be considered creative. However, other common skills, such as prodigious musicality, are. One of the theories explaining the appearance of creativity in ASD individuals is that because they are unable to track the mental states of others, they have no sense of what is correct, fashionable, or desirable. Thus, the individual is free to do what he or she likes, and the resulting expression is perceived as original and creative (Happé & Frith, 2009). These expressions are encouraged by the fact that ASD individuals have unique cognitive patterns. They often have parallel, non-strategic integration of thought patterns and information processing, which can draw connections between unlike ideas (much like divergent thinking). Because of this, information processing happens without information being lost as it would in the normal information processes and perceptions in non-autistics (Happé & Frith, 2009). Furthermore, Claridge & McDonald (2009) also found that there is an overlap between negative schizotypy and ASD. Negative schizotypy is associated with mathematical creativity, a description which often fits the characteristics of ASD individuals quite well. Thus, it seems that ASD is conducive to creativity insofar as it allows for more comprehensive and unique information processing, which is more likely to be expressed due to lack of inhibition.

Creativity and Affective Disorders

Affective disorders, especially Bipolar Disorder, are also an area of psychopathology where creativity often appears. In a study done by Jamison (1994), nearly all creative writers and artists (89%) had experienced intense, highly productive and creative episodes, most frequently lasting 2 weeks. These periods were characterized by pronounced increases in enthusiasm, energy, self-confidence, speed of mental association, fluency of thoughts, elevated mood, decreased sleep, and a strong sense of well-being. Most psychologists would interpret such periods as manic periods typical of Bipolar Disorder.

It has been found that in affective disorders the ability to maintain high mood, or hypomania, is key to creative output in that it facilitates the speed and range of the imagination. Hypomania provides an enormous amount of energy and increased emotion which allows the individual to work on a task for prolonged periods of time as well with great motivation and confidence (Averill, 2005; Nettle, 2010). Many researchers have found that hypomanic and creative thought are very similar in that they both include fluency, rapidity, and flexibility of thought (Jamison, 1994). Other studies have found that rhymes, punning, and sound associations increase during mania and many patients spontaneously start writing poetry while manic, often without any previous interest in it (Coppen, Swade & Wood, 1978 as cited in Jamison, 1994).

Of course, the next question would be: what about depressive periods? Depression greatly impairs creativity as well as productivity, and it is also the more common state of those with affective disorders (Nettle, 2001). It affects not only mood, but the nature and content of thought as well. Thinking processes slow down and decision-making becomes difficult (Jamison, 1994). There are no rose-colored glasses for the depressed individual, who sees himself and the world more accurately than both normal and hypomanic individuals (Jamison, 1994; Nettle, 2001). Although depression is often antithetical to the generation of creative works, Jamison (1994) posits that the intense pain of extreme depression and gentle reflection of mild depression are highly important in the creative process. These periods offer individuals understanding of suffering and put them in touch with reality. The grandiosity and sense of cosmic importance present in hypomania combined with an ability to make keen observations during depression helps make highly creative connections and intellectual leaps. The resulting art is sincere, truth-telling, and relatable. Overall, it seems that the swinging thought patterns and energy levels of affective disorders allow for creative works.

Christian Thought on Psychopathology and Creativity

In this paper, we have looked at psychological literature indicating that there are three main factors causing the overlap between psychopathology and creativity: divergent or chaotic thinking patterns that allow for conceptual novelty, a lack of inhibition that allows ideas to be expressed unfiltered, and extreme moods that allow for intense experiences followed by keen insights. We have not discussed, however, how we as Christians ought to understand this apparent reality, especially when many of us think of psychopathology as symptoms of the broken world.

It seems that we might think of creativity as a God-given gift that allows humans to create beauty, and beauty is that which captivates us and draws us into truth. Makoto Fujimura (2014), an artist and Christian, says this about art: “Art is gratuitous. Art is extravagant. But so is our God. God does not need us; yet he created us out of his gratuitous love.” (Fujimura, 2014 November). When living in a primarily utility-focused culture, it difficult to make sense of this kind of frivolity, especially when the people who create such gratuity can behave and experience in ways that sometimes confuse or frighten the majority. However, because these behaviors and experiences generate beauty, it seems that we cannot dismiss them. I propose that insofar as psychopathology makes life and relationships difficult for those who walk with a disorder, it is a symptom of the broken world. However, insofar as psychopathology widens humanity’s perspective, opening up a world of life and beauty that would have been otherwise unknown to us, it is an instance of redemption. All things, lovely and ugly, belong to God, and he takes on all ugly things and makes them more beautiful than they could have been before they were broken.




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[1] Divergent thinking is defined as putting unlike ideas together when there is no experiential, cultural, or empirical cause for association.

[2] Ego strength is defined by the following traits: forgiveness, compassion rather than anger and retaliation, flexibility, openness, persistence, endurance of grief, disappointment, shame, or guilt, and the ability to defer gratification.

[3]Schizotypal personality type resembles a milder form of schizophrenia that would not be considered a psychotic illness (Claridge & Hewitt, 1987; Barron, 1972). The four components of schizotypy include unusual experience, cognitive disorganization, introverted anhedonia, and impulsive nonconformity (Claridge et al., 1996).

[4] Positive schizotypy is defined by odd beliefs, unusual perceptual experiences, negative affect, and affective dysregulation, whereas negative schizotypy involves avolition, asociality, diminished positive affect, anergia, and decreased verbal fluency.