Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The dark side of creativity: Depression + anxiety x madness = genius?

By William Lee Adams, for CNN
updated 10:35 AM EST, Wed January 22, 2014
Throughout history, numerous artists have battled mental illness, leading scientists to examine the link between creativity and mental health. Edvard Munch, who died exactly 70 years ago, suffered from anxiety which he poured into his paintings, such as "The Scream", pictured here. Throughout history, numerous artists have battled mental illness, leading scientists to examine the link between creativity and mental health. Edvard Munch, who died exactly 70 years ago, suffered from anxiety which he poured into his paintings, such as "The Scream", pictured here.
HIDE CAPTION
Tortured and brilliant
Creative madness
Beauty from despair
Light within the darkness
World of color
Gentle beauty
Obsession as inspiration
Troubled maestro
Beautiful darkness
Melodies from within
Back to black
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Psychologists have explored the link between creativity and madness for decades
  • Great artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch suffered from mental illness
  • Recent studies found that people in creative professions were more likely to be bipolar
  • Research also shows there could be an inherited trait that gives rise to creativity and mental illness

(CNN) -- Celebrated Norwegian artist Edvard Munch's life was fraught with anxiety and hallucinations.

The painter, who died 70 years ago today, created one of the most recognized masterpieces in history, "The Scream", which came to him in a sinister vision as he stood on the edges of Oslofjord.

"The sun began to set - suddenly the sky turned blood red," he wrote. "I stood there trembling with anxiety - and I sensed an endless scream passing through nature."

The painting is thought to represent the angst of modern man, which Munch experienced deeply throughout his life, but saw as an indispensable driver of his art. He 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."

Munch may be one of the most high profile artists to walk the line between extreme talent and torment, but he is not the only one.

I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me. Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause.
Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, who cut of his ear after an argument with his friend Paul Gauguin, and later killed himself, swayed heavily between genius and madness.

In a letter to his brother Theo in 1888 he wrote: "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."

These painters' personal struggles still echo in popular culture today, and have given rise to the belief that artists are more susceptible to a range of mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

A growing body of research suggests that there is merit to that popular assumption. Madness may lurk where creativity lies.

The dark side of creativity

Psychologists have been fascinated by the potential link for decades. The earliest and most rudimentary studies examined eminent people across fields including literature and the arts.

These studies found that creatives had an unusually high number of mood disorders. Charles Dickens, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O'Neill all appeared to suffer from clinical depression. So too did Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf. Sylvia Plath famously took her own life by sticking her head in an oven while her two children slept.

The famed American artist Jackson Pollock suffered from depression and alcoholism. His inner turmoil was reflected in his broad, sometimes disturbing canvasses, such as "Circumcision" shown here.
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

Critics rightly pointed out that these studies focused on very specific groups of high-achievers, and that they relied on anecdotal evidence.

Subsequent studies have cast the net wider. Simon Kyaga led a team of researchers at Sweden's Karolinska Institute.

Read more: Life of a muse: What is it like to inspire art for a living?

Using a registry of psychiatric patients, they tracked nearly 1.2 million Swedes and their relatives. The patients demonstrated conditions ranging from schizophrenia and depression to ADHD and anxiety syndromes.

The sun began to set - suddenly the sky turned blood red. I stood there trembling with anxiety and I sensed an endless scream passing through nature.
Edvard Munch

They found that people working in creative fields, including dancers, photographers and authors, were 8% more likely to live with bipolar disorder. Writers were a staggering 121% more likely to suffer from the condition, and nearly 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

They also found that people in creative professions were more likely to have relatives with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia and autism.

That is significant. Earlier studies on families have suggested that there could be an inherited trait that gives rise to both creativity and mental illness.

Some people may inherit a form of the trait that fosters creativity without the burden of mental illness, while others may inherit an amped-up version that stokes anxiety, depression and hallucinations.

There is anecdotal evidence supporting the connection. Albert Einstein's son lived with schizophrenia, as did James Joyce's daughter.

Keri Szaboles, a psychiatrist at Semmelweis University in Hungary, has studied the role genes may play more directly.

Szaboles gave 128 participants a creativity test followed by a blood test. He found that those who demonstrated the greatest creativity carried a gene associated with severe mental disorders.

Method in the madness?

Psychologists have established a link between mental illness and creativity, but they are still piecing together the mechanisms that underlie it.

In September neuroscientist Andreas Fink and his colleagues at the University of Graz in Austria published a study comparing the brains of creative people and people living with schizotypy.

Read more: Art and fashion, new BFFs?

Schizotypy is a less severe manifestation of schizophrenia. People with the condition may demonstrate odd beliefs (like a belief in aliens) or behavior (like wearing inappropriate clothes). Unlike schizophrenics, they do not have delusions and are not disconnected from reality.

Fink and his team recruited participants demonstrating low and high levels of schizotypy. They then slid them into a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, and asked them to come up with novel ways of using every day objects. They later assessed the originality of their responses.

One of the greatest artists of all time, Michelangelo Buonarroti, is thought to have suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder. His frescoes and sculptures are masterful in its exquisite details, and he would reputedly shut himself away from the world for days at a time to create.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An interesting pattern emerged. Among those high in schizotypy and those who scored highest on originality, the right precuneus - a region of the brain involved in attention and focus - kept firing during idea generation. Normally this region deactivates during a complex task, which is thought to help a person focus.

Put more simply, the results suggest that creatives and those with high levels of schizotypy take in more information and are less able to ignore extraneous details. Their brain does not allow them to filter.

Scott Barry Kaufman, an American psychologist and writer for Scientific American, has summed up the results this way. "It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible," he writes. "Because you never know: sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas."

Clearly some people suffer for their art, and clearly some art stems from suffering. But it would be inaccurate to say that all creatives run the risk of mental illness.

Kyaga, the Swedish academic, points out that dancers, directors, and visual artists demonstrated mental illnesses less frequently than the general population.

Read more: Life imitating art: Astonishing '2D' makeup transforms model's face into famous paintings

Read more: Jameel Prize for art inspired by Islam awarded to female fashion duo

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
CNN Style
updated 7:06 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Whatever the Duchess of Cambridge is pictured wearing sells out minutes, and now her son Prince George seems to be leading in style stakes too.
updated 8:34 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Saatchi Gallery has teamed up with Google+ for the Motion Photography Prize, the world's first award for artists working with animated GIFs.
updated 12:14 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
iReporters from across the world share photos of 27 fascinating libraries.
updated 2:00 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
CNN was on the ground at Salone Internazionale del Mobile, bringing you reports on the latest designs as well as the most exclusive parties.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
From the British Museum to the Louvre, the world's leading museums are adding outlandish new wings designed by the world's top architects.
updated 10:15 AM EDT, Tue April 8, 2014
The secret lives of male to female Mongolians are exposed in haunting new images.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon April 7, 2014
Redditor Shystone imposed old paintings over Google Street View photos to create a series of stunning composite images of London then and now.
updated 11:42 AM EDT, Fri April 4, 2014
Korean artist transforms her tiny studio into fantasy worlds without the aid of Photoshop.
updated 4:42 AM EDT, Tue April 1, 2014
CNN spoke to industry experts who shared advice on how to avoid the pitfalls, and make the right decision.
updated 11:03 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Roulette table, chandelier, Louis Vuitton cushions -- Japanese truck drivers spending big to decorate their wheels.
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
Shigeru Ban, the winner of the world's most prestigious architecture award, has been using his skill to help people in disaster zones for decades.
updated 7:30 AM EDT, Mon March 24, 2014
Need to hide from the world? Do it in luxury.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Thu March 20, 2014
A $14,000 jumble sale find turned into millions of dollars for a man who wanted to sell it to scrap metal dealers.
updated 12:05 AM EDT, Fri March 21, 2014
In another display of the city's commitment to 24-hour culture, Seoul has unveiled its biggest nighttime attraction yet, in a neon-studded shopping district.
updated 11:56 AM EDT, Thu March 20, 2014
From Zaha Hadid to Mario Bellini, take a tour inside the private houses of some of the globe's most celebrated architects.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
South African artist Ralph Ziman worked with local artisans to create ominously beautiful beaded mock bullets and AK-47s.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT