The Myth of ‘Tortured Artist’

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate.

These were the words written by Virginia Woolf before she stuffed her pockets with stones and drowned herself.

Writers must, by now, have spilled gallons of ink over the link between ‘genius’ and mental illness. This debate is also closely related to romanticisation of mental illness which I will explain later. Before diving into facts and neuroscience behind creativity and mental illness let’s understand why we are having this debate.

History has seen a lot of mad geniuses. Even Aristotle said that “No great mind has existed without a touch of madness”. They talk about Savant syndrome in great extent. Savant syndrome is when a person with mental disabilities demonstrate certain talents or creativity beyond limits. We talk about autistic Wolfgang Amadeus, tortured Edgar Allen Poe or Ernest Hemingway who shot himself. Take troubled Vincent Van Gogh who suffered from bipolar disorder. At that time, so-called “madness” was seen as “voyaging into new planes of reality“. To investigate whether there is a link, the best way is to study scientific literature. The first method is to study the frequency of both events. That is how many people in world suffer with mental illness and how many ‘geniuses’ are there.

Mental illness is not a rare phenomenon. Bipolar disorder and depressive disorder occur in almost 10% of human population. Other severe illness like Schizophrenia, autism, etc. have a lower rate. However, the number of geniuses is lesser than this rate. This is indicative of the assumption that most of the mentally ill people are not genius. “There are plenty of geniuses who are not mentally ill, and there are plenty of mentally ill people who aren’t geniuses,” said HuffPost Mental Health Medical Editor Lloyd Sederer, M.D., medical director of the New York State Office of Mental Health. “Sometimes you have the two combined. When you have geniuses who have such prominence, like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Robin Williams or John Nash, they make you think that this is more common than it is.”

The researchers who dismantle the proposition that there is a link say that for ‘genius’ you require either high IQ or strong memory.  High IQ allows a person to process and manipulate the additional stimuli rather than becoming overwhelmed by it. So Increased IQ helps protect vulnerable people from several serious psychological disorders. Enhanced working memory capacity may also constitute a protective factor in a shared vulnerability model of creativity and psychopathology. People with higher working memory capacity may be more able to process additional stimuli resulting from altered states of consciousness, such as those produced by reduced mood disorders, or SSD symptoms. Thus creativity prevents a person from falling into a serious mental disorder. As suggested by Mednick,62 creativity is based on the ability to combine aspects of remotely associated constructs, then the ability to hold and process a large number of constructs in mind simultaneously without becoming confused or overwhelmed makes a person creative rather than having disoriented cognition.

Image result for shared vulnerability model of the relation between creativity and psychopathology
Shared vulnerability model of the relation between creativity and psychopathology (Image Source: Carson, Shelley. (2014). Leveraging the “mad genius” debate: Why we need a neuroscience of creativity and psychopathology.

There is another explanation by scientists which is called “Shared vulnerability model”. This model explains that illness and creativity may stem from same things like preference for novelty but they don’t have relation with each other. The problem with researchers who claim that there is a link is that they take a very small sample size and those who take a larger sample size are not able to take objective measures of creativity. In fact there are many cases where mental stability has been known to boost creativity. This is because one of aspect of creativity is high productivity. The people who suffer from maniac disorder find that during manic cycle it is difficult to focus and during depression the individual feels too out of rhythm to conceive ideas.

So why is this myth so commonly accepted by people?

This can be explained by the phenomena of “Availability heuristic”. It is a mental shortcut most of us take. When there is a prominent instance of a case then our brain registers it faster and derives conclusions from it very swiftly. So when we think of link between mad and genius the case of Van Gogh or the case of Newton registers in our brain prominently than case of 99% individuals who are not highlighted.

There is a very negative impact of this myth that people start romanticising mental illness. The pain of going through such an extreme situation is disregarded by people. There are various cases where the society expects maniac disorder sufferers to be more creative and dismiss their pain by citing that how productive, for example, Van Gogh or Hemingway was.

The artist Edvard Munch, thought to have had bipolar disorder, once wrote, according to Smithsonian magazine,Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder … My sufferings are part of myself and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.” Thus it is important that we realize that the link between two is quite weak. Such mental illness are needed to be treated and the patients need a professional help.

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Varnika Goel
Varnika Goel
An Engineer, who loves to read, write and listen. She believes that words are the only medium to bring about a change for good.

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