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Creativity and Madness

creativity and madness
✍ By Laeta Tuladhar / Princila Nepali, 5th April, 2024

Creativity and Madness


Laeta Tuladhar
Princila Nepali

A ‘mad genius’; well-loved cultural icon is the romantic portrayal of the notion that creativity and mental illness go hand in hand. An enhanced level of creativity is often associated with mental illness. Most common examples of this belief are Michelangelo, Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf. The media often presents these geniuses or prodigies as deeply troubled individuals who have a hint or more of mental illness. It attempts to show that the source of their original ideas is their mental turmoil. These appearances make mental illness seem desirable, as indispensable to creativity. Is there really a link between creativity and mental illness? Here’s a look into the connection between psychopathology and creativity.

Keeping the common pop culture association sides, research has backed up the notion that there is a high prevalence of those with mental illnesses engaged in creative occupations. A large-scale Swedish study published in 2011 found that people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, along with their healthy siblings, are overrepresented in creative (artistic and scientific) professions. In particular, Schizophrenic patients have been observed to have more artistic professions.1 In an expansion of this study, researchers looked into authors in particular and concluded that, “being an author was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.”2 This research, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2013, also found that people who made their living through overall creative professions were more likely to have bipolar disorder.

Another study also found that higher than average incidences of mental illness are found among people who practice professions that demand high levels of creativity, such as visual artists and writers.3 A 2013 study suggested that the mental processes that occur during creative practices are similar to mental processes that occur in people with “psychosis proneness.”4 The shortcomings in information processing mechanism among certain psychiatric populations (e.g., psychosis) may translate to benefits in the context of creative cognition.5 This theory suggests that some mental illnesses can cause people to have a reduced ability to filter irrelevant thoughts and a cognitive deficit in normal day-to-day undertakings. It hinders them from adapting to social and cultural norms. This very deficit could bring forward original ideas. Some studies support the Inverted U theory that states psychopathology increases creativity with the severity of the symptoms only to a certain point.6 Beyond that point of severity, creativity diminishes. In the case of bipolar disorder, the patients experience a sharp boost in their productivity and creativity during hypomanic episodes, and severe bipolar disorder leads to a decrease. Those with subclinical (mild) symptoms related to ADHD, schizotypal and psychotic disorders have selective advantages in creative cognition.7 Likewise, creativity is heightened in the first-degree relatives of patients with mental disorders. 1,2,6,8

Kari Stefansson, founder and CEO of deCODE, a genetics company based in Reykjavik, referred to an article in the journal Nature Neuroscience, pointing to a common biology for some mental disorders and creativity.9 The study based in Iceland found that painters, musicians, dancers and writers were 25% more likely to carry genetic variants that raise the risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, in comparison to those with less creative occupations.  The findings of this study are that the link between mental disorders and creativity in the Icelandic study is not a very strong one, showing only 0.25% of the variation in peoples’ artistic ability. It has been said that although we may be familiar with famous cases of creative figures who have confirmed their psychological troubles and struggles, this is not necessarily the case for the general demographic of creatives.

The oft-cited studies by K. R. Jamison and Nancy Andreasen showing a link between mental illness and creativity have been criticized by many on the grounds that they involve “small, highly specialized samples with weak and inconsistent methodologies and a strong dependence on subjective and anecdotal accounts.”10 A much stronger criticism comes from psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg, the Psychology professor of Harvard who spent nearly three decades as principal investigator of the “Studies in the Creative Process” project. Rothenberg  addresses what he calls the “presumably objective” work of Andreasen and Jamison, noting the widespread inclination to soft-pedal its limitations: “the need to believe in a connection between creativity and madness appears to be so strong that affirmations are welcomed and treated rather uncritically”.11  Rothenberg’s 2,000 hours (about 2 and a half months) of interviews, on the other hand, lead him to reliably identify that creativity has nothing to do with mental instability at all.

The symptoms presented in Jamison’s Touched with Fire specifies hypomania, a state in bipolar disorder, as a combination of “sharpened and unusually creative thinking,” “more energy than usual,” “elevated mood,” “decreased need for sleep,” and “increased productivity, often with unusual and self-imposed working hours”.12 These symptoms will be familiar to any creative person who has ever been intensely and happily focused on a new idea.

The aforementioned studies show us that eminent creators and creatives in the arts have faced early hardships and instability in mental and emotional aspects. This, however, does not substantiate that their creative ideas emerged from their mental turmoil. There are many eminent people who do not have a debilitating mental illness or harsh early life experiences. On the flipside, not many people with mental disorders show heightened creativity.

Several studies and research point to a degree of correlation between mental illness and creativity, none being definitive. There are still many aspects unexplored and questions unanswered; for instance, whether encouraging people with mental illness to manage their symptoms well leads to a reduction of their creative creativity. However, it is noteworthy that creativity and mental illness can both co-exist as well as be mutually exclusive. Creativity neither ends at mental illness nor is it the only source.


1.       Kyaga S, Lichtenstein P, Boman M, Hultman C, Långström N, Landén M. Creativity and mental disorder: Family study of 300 000 people with severe mental disorder. Br J Psychiatry.        2011;199(5):373-379. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.110.085316

2.      Kyaga S, Landén M, Boman M, Hultman CM, Långström N, Lichtenstein P. Mental illness, suicide and creativity: 40-Year prospective total population study. J Psychiatr Res. 2013;47(1):83-90. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2012.09.010

3.      Simonton DK. More Method in the Mad-Genius Controversy: A Historiometric Study of 204 Historic Creators. Psychol Aesthet Creat Arts. 2014;8:53. doi:10.1037/a0035367

4.      Fink A, Weber B, Koschutnig K, et al. Creativity and schizotypy from the neuroscience perspective. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2014;14(1):378-387. doi:10.3758/s13415-013-0210-6

5.      Carson SH. Creativity and Psychopathology: A Shared Vulnerability Model. Can J Psychiatry. 2011;56(3):144-153. doi:10.1177/070674371105600304

6.      Richards R, Kinney D, Lunde I, Benet M, Merzel A. Creativity in Manic-Depressives, Cyclothymes, Their Normal Relatives, and Control Subjects. J Abnorm Psychol. 1988;97:281-288. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.97.3.281

7.      Abraham A. Frontiers | Is there an inverted-U relationship between creativity and psychopathology? doi:

8.     Andreasen NC. Creativity and mental illness: prevalence rates in writers and their first-degree relatives. Am J Psychiatry. 1987;144(10):1288-1292. doi:10.1176/ajp.144.10.1288

9.     Sample I, editor ISS. New study claims to find genetic link between creativity and mental illness. The Guardian. Published June 8, 2015. Accessed March 18, 2024.

10.   Schlesinger J. Creative mythconceptions: A closer look at the evidence for the “mad genius” hypothesis. Psychol Aesthet Creat Arts. 2009;3(2):62-72. doi:10.1037/a0013975

11.    Albert Rothenberg MD. Creativity and Madness. Johns Hopkins University Press; 1994. doi:10.1353/book.98236

12.   Jamison KR. Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. Free Press; 1993:xii, 370.

  • Laeta Tuladhar / Princila Nepali

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