The tenuous link between depression and creativity

Creative people often display traits similar to those with mental illnesses. Does this correlation indicate any causation? Neuroscience suggests a link.

by Khushboo Upreti

‘The sadness will last forever.’

—Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh is undoubtedly one of the greatest painters of all time. From his writings and other reports, he is said to have suffered from deep anxiety and depression. Sadly, the list of artists who’ve struggled with depression is a long one. It includes stalwarts like Beethoven, Leo Tolstoy, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway and Edvard Munch. In that light, the link between creativity and depression is worth exploring.

How can creativity be defined

Creativity, at its most basic, can be viewed as the ability to think expansively. It entails the repeated act of concocting unconventional ideas, and forging links between the external world and internal experiences.

Contrastingly, focus can be defined as the narrowing of vision. It allows one to concentrate and be in the present which is crucial to happiness. Focus defined this way is generally lacking in artists, which can give them a hard time.

What sort of brain activity indicates human creativity

Andreas Fink from the University of Austria, studies the precuneus in the human brain. The precuneus indicates how much one ponders over oneself and one’s experiences. In his study, he found that this area is constantly activated in most creative people as well as psychosis patients. Naturally, with the floodgate of ideas wide open, it is hard for them to focus on the present like the average person.

They are wont to rumination and have a distorted view of life

Creativity is all about uninhibited thinking. While thinking, the brain naturally veers towards issues such as one’s health, with pain and suffering as its core components. Certain people replay stressful events in their mind to figure out how they could have done things better. Creative people fall into this category.

Rumination often leads to hopelessness, points out by Yale psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. For creatives, that depressive state may be more intense and tends to last longer. This is due to their innate desire to simply keep thinking about it.

Research has also found fewer dopamine receptors, which are used for filtering information before it reaches the cortex, in the brains of both highly creative people and schizophrenics. This allows them to come up with exciting links in this seamless rush of ideas. If that’s true, it’s easy to see why the connection between genius and ‘madness’ exists.

Creativity indicates an unorthodox way of thinking

Creative individuals are inclined to think of alternate realities which are vivid and intricate. They explore the world in terms of its possibilities, not realities. They often turn this lens inwards and feel a sense of frustration when their vision doesn’t transpire in their internal or external world.

Additionally, an individual generally seeks to find their space within a socio-cultural setting. This possibility gets lost when the quintessential artistic perspective turns the cultural setting upside down in their heads. They may take situations apart and dwell over them, correlating meanings to situations which may not always exist. Social anxiety is often a product of such thinking. Given this, artistic people may often feel a sense of alienation—like an outsider looking in on the world.

Kay Jamison, author of Touched with Fire, for instance, points out how writers were 10 to 20 times more susceptible than other people to suffer manic-depressive or other forms of depressive illness. She further argued that there’s an overlap between manic-depression and creative temperament. Fluidity and originality are characteristics of a mildly manic state. Furthermore, individuals in a depressed state tend to be obsessive and self-critical.  Envisaging creative writers as bold, restless, sensitive and discontent, these manic-depressive tendencies associated can also be attributed to them.

In fact, even feelings of hopelessness can be a motivating factor if one is able to overcome the initial dip in energy. Such an upswing in energy when recovering from a creative slump can actually lead to the production of immense amount of work. This tendency has been highlighted by Shelly Carson, an instructor on creativity and psychology at Harvard.

Troubled lives also become fodder for creativity

Artists often draw inspiration from such deeply personal experiences. Sylvia Plath wrote extensively on depression and shock therapy based on her own travails. Meanwhile, painter Edvard Munch’s classic, ‘The Scream’ was supposed to represent the angst of the modern man, an experience he could personally relate to.

In a telling remark, author Alexandra Styron notes in her book ‘Reading My Father’, how,  her father’s, the novelist William Styron, creative urge was so strong that a sense of hopelessness would lurk into his thoughts whenever he felt that he wasn’t working well. This logic can easily extend to artists in general.

Could the artist’s lifestyle be a contributing factor?

An artist needs to be able to review his work in a critical and unbiased way. This self -doubt is actually a leading characteristic of depression.

Artists also often work in isolation, tend to have erratic sleeping schedules and lead a sedentary lifestyle. Lack of physical activity has often been identified as a key reason for depression. This might be the reason why dancers and directors demonstrate mental illnesses less frequently than the general population, as pointed by the Swedish academic, Kyga.

Most artists also face constant rejection and not receive criticism during the course of their career. It is not rare for an artist and their work to only be recognized posthumously! All this makes them vulnerable to depression.

Nonetheless, it’s important to acknowledge that a link between the two doesn’t indicate that all artists will be depressed. The point to be driven home is how certain aspects of an artist’s life can make them vulnerable to depression.

Does the reverse hold true?

The above arguments point towards how an artist’s mental frame and lifestyle can make them prone to depression and other mental illnesses. There is, however, a need to explore whether the contrary claim of depression fuelling creativity could be true.

The jury is not out on the exact link between the depression and creativity albeit the high levels of correlation. This ambiguity is perhaps best summed up by Ernest Hemingway “That terrible mood of depression of whether it’s any good or not is what is known as The Artist’s Reward.”

Khushboo Upreti is a writing analyst at Qrius








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