Mental Disturbance and Creative Achievement

Rohit Khare (
Wed, 03 Sep 1997 23:39:55 -0400

[1. is an EXCELLENT site.=20
2. Please check out the 8-point checklist below, if nothing else ("about
half of Nobel laureates in science have studied under other laureates")=20
3. Bottom line: there isn't a conclusive case that innovation requires
misery, but it's close :-]

Mental Disturbance and Creative Achievement =20

By Arnold M. Ludwig
The Harvard Mental Health Letter, March 1996
What personal qualities are needed to make important discoveries, create
original works of art, or do what no one has done before? The early Greeks
believed that mortal creators were inspired by a divine madness. The belief
that genius feeds on mental turmoil persists today, promoted by stories
about famous persons who were emotionally disturbed, such as Virginia
Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O'Neill, Paul Gauguin, and Robert Lowell.
Yet many other creative geniuses appear to have been emotionally stable;
some examples are Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Camille Pissarro, Fred
Astaire, Margaret Mead, George Gershwin, Arnold Schoenberg, Le Corbusier,
Alexander Fleming, Edgar Degas, Carl Jung, and Orville Wright. And most
people who suffer from mental illness or mood disorders show little
evidence of creativity.=20

During a research project that lasted over 10 years, I studied a
representative sample of 1,000 deceased 20th-century figures who were
prominent in the arts, the sciences, public life, business, the military,
and social activism. I gathered information on their families, childhoods,
education, careers, and health, paying special attention to such symptoms
as drug abuse, alcoholism, depression, anxiety, psychotic episodes, suicide
attempts, and mania. To measure creative eminence, I developed an
achievement scale that correlated highly with the number of lines allotted
to a person in the Encyclopedia Americana and Encyclopedia Britannica. The
standards included recognition in life and reputation after death, breadth
of appeal of creative works, originality, foresight, influence on
colleagues and the public, and total extent of innovative achievement.=20

Creative artists, as I expected, were by far the most likely to suffer from
mental disturbances. The lifetime rate ranged from 39% to 49% in the
social, business, and investigative professions, but averaged 72% among the
artistic professions -- considerably higher than the estimate of 32% for
the population as a whole derived from a recent survey.=20

Alcoholism and depression were widespread among artists, composers,
entertainers, and writers. Actors and performers had the highest rates of
illicit drug use; poets were more likely to experience mania and psychoses;
actors, fiction writers, poets, and musical entertainers were most likely
to attempt suicide. Only architects and designers, and to some extent
non-fiction writers, showed few signs of mental instability. Creators whose
work relies more on precision, reason, and logic are apparently less prone
to mental disturbance than those whose work relies on emotional expression
and subjective experience. This distinction holds within each artistic
field. Poets and writers of fiction have higher rates of mental illness
than nonfiction writers; improvisational jazz musicians and rock composers
have more emotional problems than classical and traditional musicians;
social scientists use more mental health care than natural scientists.=20

Creative artists often show signs of emotional turmoil long before they
launch their careers, and the artistic professions tend to accommodate
people with troubled childhoods. Among eminent poets, musical performers,
and fiction writers, for example, one-third suffered from serious mental
problems as teenagers, and three-fourths in adulthood. By contrast, eminent
persons in the military, the sciences, the academic world, and politics
showed excellent mental health in both adolescence and adulthood. The
mothers of creative artists were also more likely to suffer from
alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and psychoses; their fathers were more
likely to be alcoholic, and their brothers and sisters were more likely to
be depressed or abuse drugs.=20

Whatever emotional conflicts people bring to their careers, the professions
they choose also appear to exert a powerful influence. Some professions
elicit the expression of emotional turmoil and others dampen it. Poets, for
example, may need to reveal pain and anguish in their writings. Musical
entertainers may rely on drugs or alcohol to reduce inhibitions. Actors who
experience the gamut of emotions associated with falling in and out of love
may be better prepared to play certain roles. Artists and writers may use
alcohol to stimulate their imaginations and overcome creative blocks. On
the other hand, architects must be more stable and businesslike to gain the
confidence of their clients. Politicians, military officers, and
businessmen need to be conventional and emotionally stable, at least in
appearance, to win the confidence of the public. Because of the nature of
their research, scientists cannot afford to be too moody or subjective.=20

The high rate of mental illness among creative artists does not mean that
emotional turmoil is a source of creativity. Even among artists, those who
are mentally healthy may be as creative as those who are not. The
relationship between mental disturbance and creation depends on the nature
and severity of the mental disturbance and the type of creative expression.
Emotional turmoil can be a creative spur. "The existence of a writer is
truly dependent on his desk," Franz Kafka wrote. "If he wants to escape
madness, he really never should leave his desk. He must cling to it with
his teeth." George Bernard Shaw wrote that if you can't get rid of the
family skeleton, you might as well make it dance. Yet mental disorders and
emotional suffering can also interfere with creative activity. As Sylvia
Plath said, "When you are insane, you are busy being insane -- all the
time.... When I was crazy, that's all I was."=20

To find out which personal attributes and factors contribute to great
achievement, I compared 250 of the most eminent and 249 of the least
eminent members of my sample. The upper group included Albert Einstein,
James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Martin Luther King, Jr., Winston Churchill,
and Henri Matisse; the lower elite included Dorothy Parker, Joseph
McCarthy, J. P. Morgan, and Gen. George Patton. More than one-half of the
upper elite had serious symptoms of mental disorders, especially depression
and alcoholism, as compared with one-third of the less eminent. But a
statistical model based on the lifetime duration and severity of these
symptoms classified only 63% of the sample by eminence -- a difference not
much greater than chance.=20

I then developed a more elaborate statistical model and found that eight
characteristics distinguished 92% of the creative superstars from the less
eminent. These characteristics form a template for greatness:=20

1) Early signs of giftedness: Truly great achievers usually show special
abilities as children. This is especially common among musical composers
and entertainers. Gustav Mahler gave his first concert at age 10; Lorenz
Hart began composing light verse at five; Buster Keaton was the star of a
family vaudeville act at four; Fred Astaire danced professionally at five.=

2) Special parenting and mentoring: The upper elite are more likely to
receive support in developing their gifts from their parents, who often
have creative talents and emotional problems of their own. They are also
more likely to find mentors; for example, about half of Nobel laureates in
science have studied under other laureates.=20

3) Contrariness: People destined for greatness tend to harbor an ingrained
contrariness. They are often disrespectful of established beliefs and
customs; they are more likely to be irreligious and to resent authority,
including the authority of their parents.=20

4) Capacity for solitude: The great creators tend to be self-reliant loners
who avoid groups unless they are in charge. They shun collaboration and are
rarely interested in working with others as equals. In fields where
teamwork, collaboration, or group effort is required, such as business,
politics, or the military, it is more difficult for exceptional individuals
to gain lasting fame.=20

5) Physical vulnerability: The superstars tend to have more physical
ailments than average. As children, they are more likely to be regarded as
frail or sickly, to have a physical disability, or to face a
lifethreatening illness. Winston Churchill, Anatole France, and Thomas
Wolfe had speech impediments; Jean-Paul Sartre had a useless right eye;
Edward Munch, George Orwell, and Albert Camus had tuberculosis. As adults,
the eminent creators are more likely to suffer from serious chronic
physical disorders. Their fragile health may contribute to a sense of
urgency in pursuing their creative goals.=20

6) A personal seal: Almost all creators at the upper rung of eminence,
especially in the arts and sciences, emblazon their works with a personal
seal or professional signature. The achievement, name, and distinctive
style tend to merge. Walt Disney becomes identified with his cartoon
characters, Charlie Chaplin with the Little Tramp, Albert Einstein with the
formula E=3DMC2.=20

7) Drive for dominance: People at the upper rung of creative eminence have
boundless self-confidence and an unyielding drive for supremacy. Charles de
Gaulle proclaimed, "I am France," and believed he was an instrument of
destiny. Paul Gauguin said, "I am a great artist, and I know it." Frank
Lloyd Wright openly referred to himself as the world's greatest living

8) Psychological unease: Extraordinary achievements neither arise from
emotional contentment nor confer peace of mind. Members of the upper elite,
whether they suffer from mental illness or not, tend to be restless,
impatient, and driven people whose successes do not satisfy them for long.=

Mental disturbances may indirectly affect creative productivity by
maintaining a state of unease that serves as a source of creative tension.
Eminent creators who suffer from mental turmoil have a constant source of
tension; those who are emotionally stable can generate their own sense of
unease in the process of creation. Creators with emotional conflicts try to
resolve them through creative expression; those who are relatively free of
conflict seek out problems to solve. At these times they can often work
effectively without tiring for long periods and experience creative "highs"
that resemble hypomania. Their preoccupation with their work may make them
seem addicted to their own thought processes.=20

Few people have all elements of the eightfold template, and no single
element is decisive. This helps to explain why the relationship between
mental disturbances and creative achievement is so complex and subtle. In
itself, mental illness or emotional disturbance is not necessarily either
advantageous or disadvantageous to creativity. Other personal attributes
and circumstances determine the capacity to exploit inner tensions in the
service of creative achievement.=20

Arnold M. Ludwig, M.D., is the E. A. Edwards Professor of Psychiatry at the
University of Kentucky Medical School. He is the author of The Price of
Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy. New York:
Guilford Press, 1995.=20

=A9 President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1996=20

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