The science of emotions: Jaak Panksepp at TEDxRainier
There is no overarching explanation
Edvard Munch's "The Scream."
- Several studies over the years have shown a link between various mental health problems and having a creative brain.
- Many artists and creatives have famously struggled with their mental health.
- Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf all eventually ended their own lives.
- But some psychologists are tentative about reading too much into the connection.
- Rather than one definitely leading to the other, it's probably more valuable to look into the lifestyles of creative people, and what leads them there.
Psychologists have long been fascinated by the tentative link between mental health and creativity. It's no secret that some of the most famous artists of all time were plagued with delusions and hallucinations, and to this day we see news stories of artists and performers in the public eye struggling with their mental health, and sometimes taking their own lives.
The pattern seems to go back a long way. In 1888, Vincent Van Gogh famously cut off his ear after an argument with his friend Paul Gauguin. He committed suicide two years later in 1890.
"I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me," he wrote in a letter to his brother a couple of years before his death. "Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head... At times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse."
Van Gogh's self portrait. Getty Images/Self-Portrait by Vincent Van Gogh
Edvard Munch, who painted one of the most iconic and widely recognised masterpieces of the 19th century, also had his demons. After painting "The Scream," he said the idea came to him in a vision, where the "sky turned blood red."
"I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired," he wrote. "Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature."
Experts believe the painting represents the anxiety of man, coupled with Munch's internal torment, which fueled his art. In 1908, Munch wrote how his condition was "verging on madness," and it was "touch and go," so he entered electrification therapy for hallucinations and feelings of persecution.
The 'tortured' or 'starving' artist
"We've got a whole bunch of tortured artists," psychologist Perpetua Neo told Business Insider, speaking on the proposed link between mental illness and creativity. "A lot of them draw on their tortured selves to create meaning and create art."
Artists can be pretty unhappy people, she said, and they are often quite honest about that fact. "But at the same time, as a psychologist, I would ask if perhaps they need to believe, to create their identity, to be an artist with a tortured soul."
It ties in with the idea of the "starving artist," where people sacrifice their wellbeing in order to focus on their art — living on minimum expenses, spending whatever they have on their art projects.
"If you're always going to be that way and take it as your identity, you're going to make choices that lead you down that road," Neo said. "There's this idea, this perception, that I don't know how to manage money, I'm bad at this, I don't know how to be commercial. And of course, if you think that, you're going to stay there that way."
With the tortured artist identity, they may believe their creativity is a form of therapy, to create a fantastical kind of world to the real one we live in.
But if that therapy starts to not work anymore, what happens then? Is that why Virginia Woolf swam into the middle of a river and drowned herself? Is it why Sylvia Plath put her head in an oven, while her children slept in the next room?
"This therapy only has a certain kind of effect," Neo said. "After they create this art, they still feel a bit lost, then obviously there's a limit to how much this art will help them."
A painting of Virginia Woolf by Christiaan Tonnis
A mental health problem can become linked to identity
For some people, their . If they come up against the prospect of getting better, they may start to wonder who they are without their problems. They might think, "Who am I when the pain is gone?" or "If I'm not a tortured soul, will I actually be creative anymore?" Neo said.
Munch, for instance, wrote in his diary: "My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art."
A creative's desire to be profound and influential in their field might outweigh any desire to get help, ultimately leading them down a road where their mental health deteriorates further.
On the other hand, artists and other creatives may suffer from "impostor syndrome." Essentially, it's when someone believes they have only gained success or fame out of chance, rather than their achievements.
"It's got to do with this disconnect of how they see themselves," said Neo. "They often feel like they don't deserve something, or it's because the gulf between the expectations of where they should be, and where they actually are, is very big."
Everybody only sees a certain side of us, she said, because of how we are portrayed, or because . Those in the limelight are bound to be more likely to struggle with this, because of how the media can twist what happens in their lives to sell stories. They have no control over what's printed about them, or how they are perceived.
Creative people tend to be night owls.
The direct link isn't the most important one
One study from the Office of National Statistics in England, covering the years from 2011 to 2015, showed people who work in arts-related jobs were up to four times more likely to commit suicide. Meanwhile, another study, from 2013, found being an author was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.
But many psychologists are skeptical about the proposed link, suggesting people with emotional volatility might be drawn into creative industries and the entertainment world. Thus we the public are more aware of it when they take their own lives, or suffer from a debilitating mental health problem.
According to Neo, it's not so much about finding a direct link, but what's going on in between.
For example, studies have shown how night owls (people whose natural rhythm makes them stay up later and wake up later) are often more creative than early birds. But most of us don't live in a world where our social and work schedule fits around our body clock, so we have to make do with being a bit sleep deprived some of the time.
Creative types, particularly if they are night owls, may work into the early hours because it's when they get bursts of imaginative ideas.
"Everything becomes beautiful [at night]," said Neo. "It can be beautiful in a melancholic way, and creatives tend to draw this melancholy and reflectiveness as a source of inspiration."
Some may even train themselves to wake up from dreams, disrupting their sleep cycle.
Mary Shelley said the idea for "Frankenstein" came to her in a dream.
Mary Shelley famously got her inspiration for Frankenstein from a dream. Dmitri Mendeleev also saw how the periodic table should be arranged while he was asleep, then woke up and drew what he had envisioned.
While awake, the prefrontal cortex in the brain dials down the things we don't need to focus on, like the taboo subjects or irrelevant thoughts we normally bat aside. But when we sleep, the prefrontal cortex has a rest, while the visual lobe kicks into hyperdrive. Essentially, these thoughts are set free, and that's why dreams can be so vivid.
Sleep experts also generally believe there is a period in the night which is where our brain does most of its regenerative work. Or, as Neo calls it, where it "clears out all the junk." Melatonin production — the hormone that makes us feel sleepy — is also highest between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.
Staying up instead of getting rest in this important time period can easily throw you out of sync, which can wreak havoc on your body and mind — especially if you're doing it all the time. A study last May found a possible link between a disrupted body clock and mood disorders such as depression, so it's not difficult to see how the late night creative lifestyle could impact someone's mental health in the long run.
There's also the matter of substance abuse, which is rife in the creative industry. Whether it's drawing, writing, presenting, or performing, illegal highs can become an entirely normal aspect of the day. Not only do stimulants keep you up, they've also been linked to several mental health issues.
"If you're in a vulnerable time, you're trying to make an impression, and you have to stay up late, and someone pumps you full of free amphetamines, your brain starts to fire off — it's right time, right place," Neo said. "Then it starts becoming a habit. And some people tend to be a lot more impulsive, some people less. So right time, right place, right person."
Some people absorb everything
Another possible link between creativity and mental health was discovered in a paper from 2014. Neuroscientist Andreas Fink and his team at the University of Graz in Austria recruited creative people and people living with schizotypy — a less severe form of — and looked at their brain activity.
"In the easiest oversimplified speak, schizotypy is schizophrenia light," Neo said. "People with schizotypy don't have delusions, and they are not disconnected. What they might have is odd behaviours and beliefs, like the world is run by aliens, or the queen is a lizard. We're not just talking about conspiracy theories, or trying to find excuses for why life sucks. They really believe it. And they also have odd behaviours too, like breaking into song in public."
The results of the study found that the brains of people with schizotypy and those who were highly creative and original were wired quite similarly.
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
Normally, when you're doing a complex task, a part of your brain called the precuneus will become less activated so you can focus. In people high in schizotypy and originality, their precuneus is still firing away.
This means people with schizotypy keep taking in a lot of information, and are unable to ignore extraneous details. They have no laser focus for one task, and instead absorb absolutely everything, making connections other people might not comprehend.
"Creativity is about divergent thinking, about being able to put together concepts that other people don't think are related," said Neo. "So when your brain tends to be looser, you can elevate that. If you have a more schizotypy type brain, a more original type brain, if you already have all this information put in, they've got a lot more to draw from to create bizarre associations."
There is no overarching explanation
It's important to add that creativity doesn't beget depression and suicide. Not every creative person has anxiety or bipolar disorder. It can be easy to look at anecdotal evidence and jump to conclusions, rather than focus on the data — especially when there are two high profile cases of suicide in close proximity to each other, like this year with Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.
Ultimately, their lives reached tragic ends in a way nobody else will understand. There are plenty of possible reasons someone may start to struggle with their mental health. But there is no overarching explanation, and you can never really know why someone decides they can no longer deal with the world.
Anthony Bourdain took his life earlier this year, after struggling with depression. Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx/AP
Mental health research, whether it's on anxiety, depression, or another disorder, can seem contradictory. Someone's mental state is so subjective and personal, it can be a hard thing to define anyway, so generalisations should be avoided.
But researchers keep trying to piece the puzzle together, as more answers ultimately mean more potential ways to help guide people through their struggles.
While some artists may perpetuate their problem in the pursuit of more profound creations, others may find comfort in it, and even use it to help other people who have also been through tough times. Neo said that's called post-traumatic growth.
"They know their work is healing for others, it's also healing for them," she said. "But that's the only way they know how to deal with emotions. If you look deeper, is it because we don't really know how to deal with emotions?"
In Western cultures in particular, it's still somewhat frowned upon to be honest about your feelings, out of fear of "airing your dirty laundry" or making someone else uncomfortable. But if we're constantly repressing our true selves, you have to wonder whether it's going to come out in some other way.
"We go to school for so many years, but nobody tells us if you feel that, it's okay. It's ok to have emotions," said Neo. "At the heart of it, it's about how we process our emotions — whether we are creative or not."
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.
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