Why do creativity and madness often go hand in hand in the case of writers and poets?
The word “crazy” is thrown around so liberally to describe a wide spectrum of activities, objects, and people.
You will walk into a room with a girl trying to describe the guy she just met and she looks up into space as her friends pause sipping their milkshakes amid the suspense and then she says with a sigh and a sheepish smile, “he is crazy.” Never mind that this is a word associated with people who are medically insane.
But you cannot blame the girl because the new catch can only be one of two types of people. One is the type that wears a suit, is at the office for forty hours a week and has dinner plans every Friday and movie night on Saturday; life goes on like clockwork.
The other kind is rarely in a suit, hates authority, writes a random poem describing things in the most outrageous terms, and never settles; the kind that wants to change things up, deviate from the norm.
Of the two types of people, the first one is relatively normal, but the second type is something else. Their restlessness makes them innovators, their rebelliousness makes them loners, their outlandish quirks make them misunderstood, and their resultant emotions make them expressive artists. Creativity and madness seem to go hand in hand in the case of these individuals.
Have you ever been at a writer’s meeting? Not the type that is hosted by writers with publicists and marketers who dictate how they write their poems or books to sell the most, but the meetings where writers are still in their crude form, where they write for the love of writing. The majority of the creative in attendance will most likely have long hair or dreads, and unconventional dressing codes that “express who they are.”
Why are these writers and poets so eccentric?
That leads to the age-old question that no one quite seems to have an answer to as of yet: why? Why are these writers and poets so different from the average person?
Is it that they are wired that way or is it just habits that they adopt along the way and they choose to keep them so that they can be identified as such? Is it a coincidence that they all act so or is it a regularity? Perhaps looking into history and science may point in the direction of the correct answer.
One psychologist, Hans Eysenck, studied the link between creativity and madness and declared that there is a level of correlation between high levels of creativity and high psychoticism. This is a personality trait that points to an inclination towards psychotic behavior.
It is important to point out that psychoticism does not necessarily make the patient schizophrenic or bipolar, two of the most commonly known types of “madness.” Instead, they are just predisposed to behavior that is similar to that of more critical illness.
This was perhaps evident in the life of famed poet James Joyce, known for writing his poems lying on his stomach in bed while wearing a white coat. He had a possible predisposition to mood changes, but he led a normal life. His daughter, Lucia, on the other hand, was not so lucky as she would eventually go mad.
Could the more severe condition have been passed on from the father to the daughter? Even James did wonder.
Further research conducted at the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, on 13 highly creative people of sound mental health demonstrated some similarity in brain chemistry to that of schizophrenic people.
One of the dopamine receptors found abundantly in the brains of the people who had a high capacity to think creatively or “outside the box” had been proven to abide in the brains of schizophrenic people in earlier studies. What this means is that to think creatively, one might be required to have a brain that is wired in a fashion that is a little less than intact.
Possibly this is why most creative people in history were reported to have unusual tendencies, and what better example is there than Sylvia Plath? This is one of the most prominent poets of the 20th century and yet, hers is a tragic tale inundated with suffering and crashing to an end in suicide.
She suffered from clinical depression for the majority of her life and all the pain she endured, for instance, her divorce and the suicide attempts, was used as fodder for most of her work. Most of her suffering in the days leading up to her suicide was captured in poems that would be published posthumously as they were discovered after her death, but the artistry in them is unquestionable.
More examples of creativity and madness
It would be easy to dismiss the link between creativity and madness as speculative if the case of Sylvia Plath was the anomaly in history. Yet it was not. In fact, it was in the majority of the reported exhibitions of such behavior among creative people.
Lady Caroline Lamb was once the mistress of Lord Byron, a veteran of the Romantic Movement in the 19th Century in England, and she would describe him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Such a comment from a person who related so closely to the renowned poet is surely worth something.
Individual cases aside, the common plagues of insanity and depression in writers and poets are proven by statistics to have been prevalent among the creatives. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, psychologist Kay R. Jamison found out that Irish and British were institutionalized at a rate twenty times more than normal people for suicide and mood disorders. If that is not a statistically significant number, what is?
Creativity and OCD
A final illustration is that of traits common in creative people and in individuals suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD patients are known for their compulsion to order things in a particular way and having uncontrollable excessive rituals, among other symptoms.
These are common traits in most of the prominent creative people. Agatha Christie, for instance, was known to eat apples in the bathtub while she pondered murder plots, James Joyce wrote in a white coat while John Steinbeck always had twelve pencils that were perfectly sharpened at his desk.
Final thoughts on creativity and madness
So does the fact that one is able to write a great story with ease and creativity make them mentally disturbed? Science has struggled with the question of whether creativity is indeed dependent on some sort of madness, but as of yet, the results of the various studies are only bit parts of a much bigger phenomenon.
However, the numerous similar cases recorded throughout history point to a regularity more than coincidence. The science has proven to some anomalies in the creative people’s brains. But what is madness if not an anomaly in the brain, the result notwithstanding?
Or maybe it is best to take the words of one creative, Edgar Allan Poe, who posed “whether madness is or is nor the loftiest intelligence”.
So, what do you think? Is there a connection between creativity and madness? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
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