What mental illness do you associate with creativity?

One of the more famous quotes by Aristotle is “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.”  Thus while there is a stereotype that mental distress is an almost inevitable part of being highly creative the reverse is also true.  If a person is mentally ill. he or she will be creative.  The question is there any substance to this idea, or have we been misled – by biographers drawn to artists with colourful and chaotic lives, and the conceits of cultural movements like the romantics?

A recent blog Here’s what the evidence shows about the links between creativity and depression tried to resolve this question by reporting the work of Christa Taylor of Albany State University.

Taylor first looked at whether creative people are more likely to have a mood disorder compared to non-creative controls.  Creativity was most commonly associated with bipolar disorder (a condition marked by periods of low and high mood). It was not associated with all mood disorders – for instance, dysthymic disorder (frequent short episodes of low mood) was no more common among creative people than controls.

To address the converse question; compared to healthy controls, are people with a clinical diagnosis of mood disorder more creative?  The answer was a no.  Overall, differences in creativity between people with mood disorder and control were statistically non-significant. The new findings appear contradictory, but to simplify, they suggest that creative people are indeed liable to mood disorder, but overall there is little evidence that a mood disorder makes you more creative.

What is far more likely is that creativity creates mood disorder as a by-product. The lifestyle required in many creative fields can be punishing.  There is financial instability, profligate substance abuse and for many such as musicians and comedians constant travel.

In the 7MTF/Humm model people who are positioned at the high end of the Depression spectrum or Doublecheckers are not regarded as highly creative per se.  Doublecheckers are driven by the desire for security.  The core emotional drive of creative people is the Artist.  The mental illness related to the Artist is Autism.  This surprises most people who associate autism with rigid thinking, restricted interests, and a literal interpretation of speech and behaviour.

However this blog Autism and Creativity – Do autistic people lack creativity, or are the measures of creativity lacking? argues the opposite.  I found the blog compelling.  As the author, Barb Cohen, says her daughter (who suffers from autism) beats to a different drum and sees objects is different way to the rest of us.  Her daughter is particularly visual, especially when dealing with dynamic events and has a rare talent for distilling and combining shapes in unexpected ways.

I don’t necessarily agree with her summing up comments about Gardiner but I do think she captures the essence of Autistic Artist brilliantly.  That is the mental illness that you should associate with creativity.

Van Gogh is often described as suffering from depression.  I beg to differ – he is very high in the Artist component.  His visual sense was second to done.  He was very much a loner. He was also an outsider.  He alienated people.  He often dressed in rags.  He had strange dietary habits.  He was not a fluent speaker.  All these are signals of the high A.

This blog also appeared in LinkedIn.


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