Saturday, 16 October 2010

creativity and depression1

"What,though,might be the biological origin of mania?One possibility is that it related to happiness,which is clearly adaptive as it encourages one to do things that are rewarding.Thus mania could be malignant happiness.It may also be related to creativity. The existence of a link between madness and genius is an idea both old and controversial. If it were true,would it not be possible to see, perhaps, the positive virtue in depressive illness? It is just such a question that Kay Radfield Jamison has explored in depth in her book "touched with fire"

Aristotle praised melancholy, since he thought that all those outstanding in philosophy,poetry and the arts were Melancholic. It was an ancient Greek view that, as Socrates put it, "madness", provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest "blessings", for it was thought, that inspiration was the only obtainable in particular states of mind, of which madness was one.The Greeks recognised the distinction between those mental illnesses which were detrimental to artistic achievement and the "sacred"madness of inspiration. There was also a fashion for melancholy in the Renaissance.

But to what extent is there really a relationship between creativity and psychiatric illness? Literary scholars have considered this question and Lionel Trilling has commented that the idea of artist as mentally illness "one of the characteristics notions of our culture". Like the Greeks, he emphasises that health is also essential for creative work, as is discipline and sustained effort.
Note here,and in most of what follows, the discussion of creativity and genius is confined almost entirely to the arts-writers,poets,painters-as if only they are creative. The relation of creativity in science,business and politics for example is barely touched upon.Yet it is hard to take seriously the idea that creativity is associated with the work of those in the arts.

Anecdotal stories about creativity and mental illness will not suffice. This has been recognised and a number of scholars have tried to find direct evidence of a link. A study of the biographies of a wide range of modern artists found that the highest rate of mental illness was in poets; almost 20per cent of those studied had committed suicide. Composers also showed high rates of mental illness,particularly depression. In general the mood disorder of artists were at least three times greater than among other professionals,including scientists and businessmen.

Jamison investigated the mod disorders of poets in Britain and Ireland born in the hundred years from 1705 to 1805 Within this group are famous figures like Lord Byron, Samuel Johnson,William Blake, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelly, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. There was a strikingly high rate of mood disorders.These poets were, compared to the general population,30 times more likely to suffer from manic depression and five times more likely to commit suicide. Studies on a group of 30 modern writers confirm these results in general. Almost 80 per cent of this sample ha a mood disorder.

Jamison interviewed a group of nearly 50 British writers and artists, all of whom had won at least one prize oer reward that recognised their distinction in their field. Most were men the average age was 53. What she wanted to to know was the role of moods in creativity. more than a third had been treated for a mood disorder and most of these had been for manic depression or depression.The artists and writers had suffered from their depression but not their mania; virtually all said that they had experienced intense, highly productive creative episodes. Almost all reported a reduced need for sleep just prior to these intensely creative periods. There were reports of mood change with descriptions of ecstasy and elation; one reported a "fever to write".Others experienced feelings of anxiety. For most,these moods were integral to their work.

It seems that the artistic creativity can benefit from a variety of experiences, including visions, fears and melancholy.Perhaps the struggle to come to terms with emotional extremes supports the creative endeavour. Profound depression can change an individuals beliefs about the nature and meaning of life. Writers, artists and composers have described how, having struggled with a depressive episode and come through it, they have used the experiences in their work.The poet
Anne Sexton used pain in her work and said that "creative people must not avoid the pain they get dealt"

While it seems easy to understand why mania, with its surge in energy and confidence, should help with creativity, it may be less easy to see why depression could be helpful. As just mentioned, depression might put into perspective thoughts and feelings that had been generated in a more manic phase. It might serve,as Jamison puts it, a critical editorial. Depression can force one to look inward and ask very difficult questions about oneself: what is it all about, what is the purpose, and who and what am I? Herbert Melville wrote that, "in these flashing revelations of griefs wonderful fire, we see all things as they are; and though when the electric element is gone, the shadows once more descend, and the false outlines of objects again return; yet not to with their former power to deceive" The poet Anton Artaud exaggerates but makes the point:" No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modelled, built or invented except literally to get out of hell."

Some manic-depressive illness can apparently give a touch of fire to an individuals work. Since it has such a strong, genetic basis could it also, perhaps be, at times, an adaptive characteristic in the evolutionary sense? It seems implausible, particularly since manic depressives are so prone to suicide and the disease is so disabling.


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