The Creativity Mystique

“These studies have contributed to the popular image of the “mad genius,” an image whose history stretches back as far as Plato and Aristotle. Recently, a new rhetorical manifestation of the mad genius image has emerged, what I call the creativity mystique of mood disorders. The creativity mystique suggests that mood disorders (a specific type of modern-day “madness”) are mysterious, even sacred, and sources of creative genius. As opposed to the mad genius image, which arose centuries before the advent of modern psychiatry, the creativity mystique has arisen alongside modern psychiatry in a symbiotic relationship, drawing upon modern medicine’s diagnostic criteria and research and—in key ways that I will point out in this article—also exerting influence upon modern psychiatric medicine. For example, the creativity mystique suggests to patients that they should avoid modern pharmaceutical treatments of mood disorders, thereby increasing—rightly or wrongly—patient noncompliance with the treatment suggestions of their doctors. This noncompliance has been noted by many researchers, including Andreasen. Doctors argue that patient noncompliance with treatment can lead to even more severe health problems for patients. Some patients may even opt to avoid treatment altogether, fearing that any treatment will stifle their creativity.

Although he claims to speak back to “psychoanalytically inclined literary critics” who “cling to the outmoded, simplistic Freudian model of this disorder” (1), and despite his outward criticism of the notion that mental illness can cause creativity,10 he nevertheless relies upon the creativity mystique when selecting manic-depressive illness as a theoretical lens for a literary study.

The creativity mystique influences patients’ decisions about their own treatment. Patients diagnosed with mood disorders rely upon the creativity mystique when they claim that treatment, especially pharmacological treatment, should be avoided because it disrupts their creative processes. An examination of online psychiatric patient discussion boards reveals many manifestations of this kind of argument. As “Scott” wrote on an online discussion board titled “Fighting the Loss of Creativity from Lithium,” “As a screenwriter I found that being on Lithium and Depakote [common drugs used to treat bipolar disorder] stripped me of every creative bone in my body” (“Fighting the Loss” para. 6). Scientists have noted that many patients who resist treatment, particularly pharmacologic treatment, point to preserving creativity as the impetus of their resistance (Andreasen, “The Relationship” 254). Scientists have also noted that patients are arriving at appointments with a self-diagnosis of bipolar disorder, going so far as to tell their doctors, “I want to be bipolar” (Chan and Sireling 103). As a consequence of this patient interest in bipolar disorder (and other mood disorders), researchers are examining whether “the self-diagnosis of bipolar disorder may also reflect the lay person’s aspirations for higher social status, as illustrated by the implicit association of bipolar disorder with celebrity status and creativity” (Chan and Sireling 104). The creativity mystique, then, seems to suggest to patients that they should not only embrace bipolar disorder as a diagnosis, but also that they should resist treatment in order to preserve their creativity. Here, I use “creativity” to mean “a mental journey between ideas or concepts that involves either a novel route or a novel destination,” borrowing neurologist Timothy Griffith’s definition (6).

More curiously, the creativity mystique has also influenced researchers who study mood disorders and doctors who treat patients with mood disorders. Neuroscientists and psychiatrists who study creativity often point to classical Western philosophers as a source of their line of research. Psychiatrist Arnold M. Ludwig, in The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy (1995), cites Plato: “Plato claimed that a poet’s inspiration arose during moments of ‘divine madness'” (Price of Greatness 1). Ludwig explains, however, that the “madness” of the ancient Greeks cannot be examined using the same framework that governs study of mental illness in modern medicine. In another text, Ludwig points to Plato’s Phaedrus for the catalog of the types of divine madness: “poetic, prophetic, ritual, and erotic” (“Creative Achievement” 33). Psychologist Jamison notes that the “possible link between madness and genius is one of the oldest and most persistent of cultural notions… . An intimate relationship between the ancient gods, madness, and the creators was described in pre-Grecian myths” (Touched with Fire 50). She also points to Plato’s Phaedrus, noting, “By the time of Plato and Socrates, common lore held that priests and poets communicated with the gods through inspired ‘madness’ and sacred enthusiasms.” Although, she notes, “Madness, as used by Plato and Socrates, encompassed a wide range of states of thought and emotion,” a common “emphasis clearly was upon a profoundly altered state of consciousness and feeling” (Touched with Fire 51). Scientific writers who study links between mental illness and creativity thus claim an authority grounded in the oldest and most respected thinkers (albeit philosophers, not scientists) in the Western tradition.


It seems, then, that articles published in the most influential science journals rarely posit more than a correlation between creativity and mood disorders, and the earliest of the contemporary research does not stray from this line. Recently, some researchers are more commonly positing causation—such as the positive benefits for creative work that may arise from experiencing mood disorders. These claims appear mostly in fringe or pop-science literature (such as Scientific American), but recently have been featured more prominently in more influential scientific literature such as the work of Akinola et al. and Galvez et al. Inverse causation arguments appear exclusively in pop-science or fringe literature, such as Death Studies (Runco) and The Journal of Creative Behavior (Kaufman), or books published for popular audiences (Maisel). The most influential psychiatric or psychological studies rarely support causation, and they do not support inverse causation at all. In fact, the inverse causation argument appears to be supported by little scientific evidence, pushing it into the realm of pseudoscience. Although texts that posit inverse causation can be accurately termed pseudoscience, their authors often suggest treatment programs for patients with mood disorders based on their arguments, and studies show that patients are tending to resist traditional treatment. Thus, the rhetorical shift from correlation and causation to inverse-causation can have real-life implications for patients.”

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