“Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not imagination”. GK Chesteron
The idea of the mad artist seems to be supported to some extent by research, as well as the experiences of mental health challenges for many creative people.
To “explain” creative people, or to discount, disparage and dismiss those who are psychologically different. Not that we may not suffer from very real emotional and mental health issues ourselves, but what do psychologists and researchers say about how these issues can relate to creative thinking?
I am crediting Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the scientific director of the Imagination Institute for the following:
“While neuroticism has been associated with a host of negative outcomes (including imposter syndrome, stress, anxiety, impulsivity, depression, and impaired physical health) and even some positive outcomes (such as threat detection and increased vigilance), creative thinking doesn’t appear to be one of its correlates.
“There’s so much we still don’t know about the creative mind, but what we do know suggests that being highly neurotic is not the magic sauce of creativity.
“But still, belief in this magic sauce persists not only in popular media, but in the research community as well.”
Unfortunately, these headlines don’t hold up to the evidence. While neuroticism has been associated with a host of negative outcomes (including imposter syndrome, stress, anxiety, impulsivity, depression, and impaired physical health) and even some positive outcomes (such as threat detection and increased vigilance), creative thinking doesn’t appear to be one of its correlates. There’s so much we still don’t know about the creative mind, but what we do know suggests that being highly neurotic is not the magic sauce of creativity.
But still, belief in this magic sauce persists not only in popular media, but in the research community as well. In a recent issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, a group of psychologists led by Adam Perkins, a lecturer in neurobiology at King’s College London, published a column titled “thinking too much” (Although the paper was an opinion piece rather than a new study, the authors did draw on a number of prior studies.) Perkins and his colleagues argued that neurotic people may have a more active “threat generator”—in addition to being afraid of immediate threats in the environment (which was already known to be high in neurotic people), perhaps they’re also constantly being fed concerns about things that only exist in their imagination.
So far, so good. Neurotic people do tend to “self-generate” an awful lot of concerns. Heck, I can relate to this—even when there is no danger in sight, my mind automatically seems to compute all the possible permutations of what could go wrong.
But in a section of the paper titled “Links between neuroticism and creativity,” they speculate that neurotic minds may be more creative “because they will tend to dwell on problems to a greater degree.” In support of their argument, they quote Isaac Newton: “I keep the subject constantly before me, and wait till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.” They also mention Newton’s many neurotic tendencies: constant brooding over past mistakes, worrying obsessively about his predecessors, his nervous breakdown in the summer and autumn of 1693.
If this were the only argument in support of the thesis, it would be easy to discount. After all, there’s nothing in the single case study of Newton to suggest that his neuroticism was a cause of his contributions to Calculus, mechanics, gravity, and cubic-plane curves. Newton’s quote suggests that he had great powers of concentration and grit (passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals), not that his nervous breakdown was somehow a positive contributor to his groundbreaking work.
But Perkins and colleagues do go on, bringing in past research to support their claim. Among the papers they cite is a study of advertising-industry employees showing that those working in creative roles tend to score significantly higher on neuroticism than employees in “noncreative roles.” They also cite a study showing that people in creative professions have a higher risk of psychiatric illness and suicide.
But here’s the thing: One can be creative in any field. There are a lot of uncreative artists and a lot of creative accountants (far too many, in fact). And for the most part, the relationships between neuroticism and creativity are pretty weak.
In a reply, a group of psychology researchers published a response to the opinion piece reviewing the existing literature on the link between neuroticism and creativity. Their review found only very weak (and sometimes even negative) correlations between neuroticism and a host of creativity-related variables, including IQ, creative thinking, insightful problem solving, creative achievement, everyday creative behavior, and self-assessed creativity.
But in totality, the evidence is clear that neurotic people aren’t necessarily creative geniuses. Where there is extraordinary creativity, it’s more likely due to a highly developed ability for sustained concentration and imagination, coupled with a strong motivation for creating something new and a high openness to new experiences.
Trust me, I wish my neuroticism caused creative ideas. But if I’m being totally honest with myself, I am usually at my best when I can shake myself free from those negative ruminations.”
I had the good fortune of working with more than a few artists that had the most insane and creative stage shows, off stage they were probably the most stable people one can imagine, the kind of folks you would gladly have over for Sunday brunch.