The Neurological Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness
Updated: Nov 24, 2019
In a letter, Vincent Van Gogh once said “I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me. 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.”
SAME, DUDE. SAME.
If you consider yourself a creative, you’ve probably experienced exactly what our friend Van Gogh was talking about: that swelling bulb of anxiety rising up in your chest and the nagging voice of self-doubt ringing in your ears. Oftentimes causing projects to be massively delayed or simply lay in the wasteland of other unfinished projects. Well guess what. Every. Creative person. Goes. Through. This. There is even science to prove it now.
According to CNN, science now backs the presumed link between creativity and mental illness. The study the article references, states that if you:
1. Work in a creative field, you are 8% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder
2. Are a writer, you are 121% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder and you’re also 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general population
The other study this article referenced was administered by psychologist, Keri Szaboles. He gave creativity tests to 128 participants, then followed that with a blood test. “He found that those who demonstrated the greatest creativity carried a gene associated with severe mental disorders.” So what is the brain doing in these instances?
Essentially, from my very layman’s understanding of what this article is talking about, the brain opens (for lack of a better term) when beginning the process of creativity and the people who carry this gene basically don’t close the brain again after beginning the creative process. It just remains open. From the CNN article: “’It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible…Because you never know: sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas.’”
This is an ultra-quick and dirty run-down of the neurological link between an individual’s capacity to create and that individual’s complete mental war zone. Take a moment and feel validated – I know that’s definitely how I’ve been feeling through researching and writing this. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Okay, you back? Good. Let’s talk about what we can do to make this whole menagerie of mental land mines a little better for everyone involved.
1. Go easy on yourself: First and foremost, before you get too balls deep in helping other people, notice how this neurological link may be affecting you. You don’t have to have schizophrenia in order to be experiencing this link. The anxiety and depression that comes with having a creative mind can be just as devastating. So before you put on your superhero cape, take a look at how you’re treating yourself in the moments where you are practicing creative expression and are running into these mental hurdles. Give yourself breaks when you need them. For me, sometimes this means a break every 10 minutes. Sometimes it’s a break once every couple of hours. Maybe a couple of extra bubble baths this week. However you do it, first practice compassion for yourself for what your brain is putting you through in this process.
2. When offering praise for someone else’s work, don’t default to typical adages: When people put something creative into the world, we want to say “Great job!,” and “I’m so proud of you!” Of course we should say these things when appropriate, but these don’t really mean anything. Like, okay yeah they do… But think about it honestly – they just don’t. What matters to people is when you can tell them why you think they did a good job. Why were you moved by something that person has created? When you say “great job,” follow it up with something specific. For example, “Wow, great job! The way you portrayed a woman’s role in your documentary really hit home for me.” The creator has put their soul out into the world for everyone to see. Explore what it feels like to do the same with your praise.
3. Volunteer: Many people experiencing homelessness are mentally ill; and it’s usually their ailments that lead their life to homelessness, for a variety of reasons. One of the easiest ways to give back is to simply give your time. Find a shelter in your area where you can volunteer to help with art therapy classes, or something of the sort. Or find a service in your area where art and creativity is the primary healing function and get involved!
Knowing that we aren’t going crazy when we feel these things is important. But when it does feel that way, remember that it’s bound to happen when creating. The important thing is to acknowledge it’s happening, don’t judge yourself for it, and then try to help someone else do the same thing. Go forth and create, you beautiful people.