Is creativity a form of madness?

People have been asking my opinion on this article and the research behind it. So here it is.

Creativity ‘closely entwined with mental illness’

Are creative people ‘mad’? Is creativity a ‘madness’? Or do they mean that we had all better watch out, because if you’re one of those creative types, you’re probably going to go mad and be depressed, and if you try to ‘get creative’ you may even end up killing yourself.

This is, of course, not what the researchers are saying.

“Lead researcher Dr Simon Kyaga said the findings suggested disorders should be viewed in a new light and that certain traits might be beneficial or desirable.

For example, the restrictive and intense interests of someone with autism and the manic drive of a person with bipolar disorder might provide the necessary focus and determination for genius and creativity.

Similarly, the disordered thoughts associated with schizophrenia might spark the all-important originality element of a masterpiece.”

The fact that lots of famous authors killed themselves, or were depressed, proves little as there are plenty of authors who are happy and still alive. There’s a tendency with statistics to point to the conclusion you want to make.

For me, the danger with the popular media view on this topic is that creativity and mental illness are portrayed as interchangeable. Beth Murphy of the mental health charity Mind agrees, “It is important that we do not romanticise people with mental health problems, who are too often portrayed as struggling creative geniuses”

And by the same token, we shouldn’t label creative people as ‘mad’.

I’ve been introduced on stage as being “totally bonkers, off the wall and crazy mad” which wasn’t really very helpful when all I was really doing was being interesting and entertaining in a unique way, with a guitar. It just shows how totally boring the other speakers on the bill must have been.

The media also often gets cause and effect confused. It may be that a ‘mental illness’ such as bipolar disorder helps an individual in a creative role to be more productive and creative OR it could mean that someone with bipolar disorder seeks out a role in a creative industry. Either way, we may find a higher proportion of people with bipolar disorder in a creative role. It says nothing about a disorder being necessary for that role. However, the research showed that someone working in a creative role is no more likely to have a mental disorder than anyone else, thus nullifying the commonly held inference and making this paragraph, like most journalism on the topic, void.

Here’s another article that makes me a bit cross:

Creative minds ‘mimic schizophrenia’

Which of course is not true. It’s not true because creativity is such a vast human endeavour and schizophrenia is an invented term to label certain types of mental illness conditions. We might as well say “Oranges mimic Tuesdays”. Except that would be totally mad.

It’s not the research that I’m questioning here, but the inferences that are being made.

I think we need to be more careful about the definition of what ‘mental illness’ is. If someone’s condition serves them, supports their work, is part of who they are and causes no long-term internal distress, then I don’t see why the medical profession, the media or anyone else has the right to call a person as having a ‘disorder’ when all they really are, is different.

If someone is suffering and in pain and can’t function in a way that serves them, then that’s a problem, obviously, and treatment may be needed. But if they’re suffering solely because of the way society has labeled them, treats them and doesn’t accommodate them, then that’s wrong.

In an age of political correctness, has society’s prejudice not been eradicated at all but instead changed its style? Has it moved from it being acceptable to discriminate out of malice or fun to discriminating by labelling anything different from a normal standard as being a ‘disorder’ and looking down elitist normal noses with pity at the poor disordered sick people.

It would make more sense if we found someone who was totally boring, who had created nothing, contributed nothing, who had lived a dull life – to be labelled as ‘mentally ill’. I’d say that person was really sick and in need of treatment.

It’s the creative people who innovate, who invent, who drive the human race forward with their discoveries, that save lives, that enrich souls. And for what? So that dull people, who never look up from looking at their shuffling feet can moan that jumping safely from the edge of space is a waste of a Sunday evening when they could have been watching the X-Factor results.

John Lennon once said that “everything is the opposite of what it is” which sounds like a nonsense statement until you think about how often it appears to be true…

If to be creative, I had to drink from the cup of madness and risk insanity, rather than become a norm, a drone, whose life’s purpose was only to remain within the accepted parameters of ordinariness – I’d drink deeply, and accept the highs and the lows as a price worth paying for a life worth living.

Ayd works with people and businesses to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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9 comments on “Is creativity a form of madness?

  1. I recall thee late 70s and early 1980s the stance and theory that came about about over how this issue you speak of was handled and i say your more on target than even you know. For in those days they put those of us on reg medical floors in the hospitals in groups at times treating us with attention and Thorazine and anything we wanted as we walked around be trained to understand we do not belong in this world of logic we needed to be cared for we were in nature known as lost dreamers were the words the doctors used. Telling us the world would crush us if we did not have protection of those around us.For 2 years i was there in these groups it left you feeling even more lost once you left the hospital because of thee in bedded control the whole process had on you.But what they did not catch was our intellect that we found quickly needed to stay hidden we watched and learned what it took to live in this world of logic. In our Thorazine haze we waited for the wall to come down see it was then all that sits within the right hemisphere of our mind come flowing spilling out since we were nothing more than blank sheets as far as who we once was from birth due from what ever damage early on in our lives.We found we could become anything any soul we wanted by reading and studying those around us we started controlling the doctors at first for fun they had no clue.Soon we learned how to control everything and everyone like puppets we became pretenders there is more proof of our kind among you than not see we weaved our way into this world of logic over the last 30 years into very powerful positions we sing we write we speak we save lives we protect and serve we are the creation of those doctors and meds used in a different time in a controlled but yes uncontrolled environment and they released us out into this world followed us 3 or 4 yrs lost track of thee study, s as time and money in mental health shrunk.But know this we are out here you just will not know us we have become what you taught us to be along with our intellect pretenders among you..Funny thought i recall not being about to have a lighter to smoke this was before concern of thee second hand issue which is a whole different study.You had to walk up and put your cig against an electric lighter for safety issues were we had been concerned never knowing everything they thought they knew about us going up in smoke.So look around we are here and now have decided to take a stand on this issue now that we who were once controlled now do the real controlling–Thank you friend for indulging and pointing out a factor that supports this stance you have to some degree within those bent 8os models-Jonathan wayne Agee-


  2. This is a brave and heartfelt rebuttal of the misconstrued notion that mental illness is connected inevitably to creativity. It is at least mischievous for anyone to infer from the cited study that creative people will go mad. If we accept that we all have the potential to express our creativity, then we all may become mad. However, if there is a creative spectrum, then the most creative people are ‘the most’. They are the most joyful, the most depressed; the most eclectic, the most focused; the most ebullient, the most reserved: the most haphazard, the most obsessive . . . They are swtched on full throttle, firing on all cylinders and making maximum use of all the ‘juice’ available. It follows that, at times, they will find themselves at the other end of the spectrum – running on empty.

    “My candle burns at both ends;
    It will not last the night;
    But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
    It gives a lovely light!”

    – Edna St, Vincent Millay

    Albert Einstein famously announced that he would not have contributed to some research, had he known of its destructive outcome. But the creative force was with him, and he could no more have withdrawn from that than travel at the speed of light himself.

    Perhaps the spectrum is also broader. There is a rich area of study here. For example, Paul McCartney is known internationally as a Beatle, a highly successful songwriter and performer. But how many people know that he is also a talented painter? Winston Churchill was. . .well, Churchill – soldier, statesman, writer, painter, bricklayer. And, of course, there’s Ayd Instone. . .

    The next shock-horror research question: ‘Is there a Creativity Gene? And, if there is, who’s got mine?’


  3. I do understand but it does not change the almost 2 yrs i spent in these conditions at thee time not understanding thee reasons most things i write about or touch on have happened in or around or to me ..I try never to step out on ground where i do not have something in bag to back me up–I admit i have never taken time to understand myself on the things i could do or see in my mind..But i know this if you did a study and had a (ct) scan this would be needed to prove my point on me alone you would find quickly unless this wall is removed in my mind i am worthless -Ref its like a fire sale going on for information from thee other side it up for grabs but i must pay as i go to obtain this–Also true anything obtained after a bit i grow tired of quickly as each bigger ideal is revealed -Is there a connection between intellect and insane maybe not but this doctor redirected my brain leaving me with something different now is it crazy or sane or a mixed combo of a one time strange thing-Jw


  4. Hi Ayd, mine’s a more simple analysis – you can be mad without being mentally ill. Or does that comment simply mean that the world mad is mostly used incorrectly – is mad used in the context of eccentric an abbr of madcap? As usual, I have more questions than answers.


  5. Pingback: Is creativity a form of madness? « GIBS Info Centre Blog

  6. It’s never as simple as a research question is it? And it’s so subjective that it almost defies any one answer. From my own perspective unexpressed creativity drives me mad, but going with the creative flow is like taking a coracle, without oars or sail, into the ocean. And then They can say, see that mad woman go, bobbing about on the waves, no compass or life jacket. She’s crazy she is – practically a Jumblie


  7. I’m absolutely thrilled you’ve chosen to speak on this topic. My friend and I were just the other day discussing the tendencies we have toward the “psychotic” (in terms of a psychological definition), but we concluded that it is our ‘creative’ impulses – our ability to open our minds to consider possibilities and scenarios outside of the norm, or outside of ‘reality’ – that are often deemed ‘psychotic.’
    Thanks so much for spreading the word, and your opinion!


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