Creativity and Mental Illness

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At one point or another, most of us have heard the stereotype of the mad genius or the creative genius who suffers from mental illness(es). Think about of historically famous or influential painters and writers who had unstable lives—some went as far as committing suicide.

The problem? This is only anecdotal evidence. It doesn’t really give us data that is reliable and objective. But what do the studies say?

Contrary to what this image claims, the link between creativity and mental disorders like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder is not as clear cut. The primarily reason is because not many studies have looked at mental illness and creativity. Furthermore, ‘mental illness’ is an umbrella term that covers many different illnesses or disorders. So naturally there are even less studies looking at particular mental disorders and creativity. 

Creativity and Depression

Silvia and Kimbrel (2010) summarize the small research that has looked for a potential depression-creativity link. They note that while some studies have found moderate positive correlations between depression and creativity, others have found negative correlations. They conclude that “the evidence for a depression-creativity link is clearly inconsistent.”

Creativity and Anxiety

They further point out that even less studies have been done to evaluate an anxiety-creativity link. One study looked at anxiety, depression, and personality disorders as a whole without distinguishing the individual disorder-creativity links. Two other studies they summarize looked at shyness, an aspect of social anxiety spectrum; one study found that shy preschoolers were rated less creative by teachers, while the other found that shy female college students were less creative in a poem-writing task.

"Taken together," write Silvia and Kimbrel, "these studies suggest that shyness (and by extension social anxiety) may be associated with less creativity” [emphasis of “may” on my part]. However, if this link does exist, it doesn’t necessarily mean that anxiety in general is negatively correlated with creativity, or vise versa—more research is needed to establish if a link exists at all..

Creativity and Bipolar Disorder

What about a bipolar disorder-creativity link? A book chapter by Lloyd-Evans, Batey, and Furnham (2006) reviewed biographical and psychiatric research studies to examine if a relationship exists.

Biographical studies work by collecting biographical data of historical individuals considered highly creative—say, Edgar Allan Poe—and searching for explicitly documented mental illnesses or clues that imply the existence of a disorder to developing a retrospective diagnosis. Evans and co-writers note that while biographical studies seem to suggest a positive correlation between bipolar disorder and creativity, they have serious limitations and can’t establish a definitive link. For example, they point out that Vincent van Gogh has been retrospectively diagnosed with different mental illnesses by different clinicians. Furthermore, they note that “it is always possible to find biographical material that appears to support a specific hypothesis and the same information might well be used to link alcoholism and creativity” (120). 

Psychiatric research studies look at persons who have been diagnosed with certain mental disorders, in this case bipolar disorder, and give them different creativity measurements to see how they differ from “normal” participants. These studies, too, point to a potential positive bipolar disorder-creativity link but were not without limitations. Some of these studies had potentially biased samples and/or no control groups. And another study didn’t show a significant correlation.

Conclusion

Clearly, things are not as simple as the images implies. A definitive link between these mental disorders and creativity has not been established yet primarily because the research is lacking, and the few available studies have methodological limitations. Here is a quick summary:

  • The limited literature on depression-creativity is inconsistent. Some studies show a positive correlation, others show a negative correlation.
  • Studies haven’t really studied anxiety-creativity. The available literature looks at shyness—which lies in the social anxiety spectrum—and has provided some evidence that there is a negative relationship between shyness, or social anxiety, and creativity. 
  • Slightly more research has examined bipolar disorder and creativity. These studies fall into two categories: biographical and psychiatric studies. Both of these methods show a tentative link (positive) between bipolar disorder and creativity, but because of certain limitations, more research is warranted to definitively establish the correlation.

To make things more complicated, we have to consider how creativity is defined and measured, and the severity of the particular mental disorder. Lastly, if we can’t be 100% sure there exists a correlation between these mental disorders and creativity, how can we possibly say that one causes the other like the image suggests? We simply can’t. 

Reference:

Lloyd-Evans, R., Batey, M., & Furnham, A. (2006). Bipolar disorder and creativity: Investigating a possible link. In A. Columbus (Ed.), Advances in Psychology Research, Volume 40. (pp. 111-142). NY: Nova Science Publishers.

Silvia, P. J. & Kimbrel, N. A. (2010). A dimensional analysis of creativity and mental illness: Do anxiety and depression symptoms predict creative cognition, creative accomplishments, and creative self-concepts? Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 4, 2-10.

Everybody’s a Psychologist

When doing research for blog posts, I like to read articles written on the topic by popular science publications (e.g. NPR, Scientific American, Nature blogs) to make sure I don’t miss anything. Sometimes they dig up publications I would have otherwise missed—publications from researchers who disagree with one another, making the topic less black-and-white. And I also like to roam the comments sections. There are few (albeit rare) times when other scientists post links to relevant studies that were not mentioned in the articles.

But we all know the comments sections. They’re not always a delight to read. I see it all the time, and maybe you guys have, too: usually, when a publication questions a widely accepted “psychological fact,” the public will express skepticism. This rarely happens in the “hard” sciences. For the exception of people who misconstrue the science to advance pseudoscience or promote religious fundamentalism, most people know they’re not experts in, say, physics or chemistry. They don’t try to disprove the findings in these fields.

But the opposite happens in social sciences, particularly in psychology. When psychological science discovers that a widely held belief is wrong—and sometimes these findings will result from meta-analyses and systematic reviews—the public will arm itself with years of personal experience and anecdotes to try and disprove the scientists. There’s something about our species’ innate socialness (is that even a word?) that makes us feel like we can acquire accurate knowledge about human behavior without the help of objective measures and observations.

While we’re generally good at deducing what drives the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of others—as social animals, we evolved to do this—we are also filled with biases that blur our interpretations. I’ll give an example: some studies (e.g. bloop & bloop) provide evidence that, in general, bilinguals have better attentional control than monolinguals. I—being a Spanish-English bilingual who lives in a city where almost everyone is Mexican-American, and hence Spanish-English bilinguals—could argue that the findings are erroneous because I feel like I have some personal insight that contradicts these findings. I could point to a few monolinguals in this city who have better attentional control than some bilinguals. Would that be enough to validate my arguments against the findings? Of course not, my sample is biased. Instead of plucking bilinguals and monolinguals at random and then comparing them, I am deliberately choosing people who already fit my previous bias that the findings are wrong. This is known as the confirmation bias.

Another thing to consider is the representativeness of my (already biased) sample. Most people I know use English and Spanish equally, code-switching regularly during conversations (Spanglish). And even people who only speak and write in one language tend to understand the other language. (It’s a weird thing, really. Two people may be having a conversation where one is solely speaking in Spanish and the other solely in English but they both effortlessly understand each other.) Since these “monolinguals” are not considered true monolinguals by some researchers, does that not make my sample even less representative of monolinguals and bilinguals at large?

This is what science is for. To quote Carl Sagan: “Science is more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking; a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that science is always right. Sometimes there are conflicts of interest that result in biased findings, sometimes there is fraud, sometimes statistical analysis is misused (on purpose or as a result of human error), sometimes research methodology is flawed. Still, science is the best tool we have for getting closer to the truth. It giving us objective knowledge that is independent of, or at least less influenced by, our own biases. That is why anecdotes, however convincing they may seem, are not real evidence. They are usually part of the confirmation bias. Keep this in mind when reading comments in articles about psychological findings.

I want to major in psychology, any advice? — Asked by thoughts-of-her-insanity

cognitivedefusion:

liberatingreality:

Recognize that you will spend tens of thousands of dollars to attain a piece of paper that offers little validation in terms of your abilities to actually demonstrate an awareness of the human psyche.  The best way to educate yourself in regards to the depths of the human psyche is through direct experience with other human beings, no textbook can replace first hand observations of man interacting with his circumstances, as well as recognizing certain innate compulsions through self reflection.  The only authentic qualification is demonstration of ability.

I disagree. An empirical study/textbook looking at psychological processes in an objective manner is more worthwhile than one individual’s subjective, biased, often-misunderstood opinion on any given phenomenon. This is a matter of research vs. anecdote, and to emphasize anecdote is arguably a major oppositional force against critical thinking, which often entails a suspension of immediate belief/impressions frequently stemming from firsthand experience in favor of objective and systematic observation. The notion that anecdote outweighs more empirical approaches is arguably the antithesis of science.

I could cite a study or two that would teach you more about the mechanisms of anxiety, the processes which fuel it, and how to successfully treat it than talking to most anyone who suffers from it could. Same for personality traits. Or language development. Or how human suffering occurs. Or just about anything, really. It’s not much different from the medical field, where talking to individuals who suffer from cancer would not be as informative when trying to understand its etiology as studying it from an actual publication/empirical text.

Talking to individuals provides incredibly useful information in how these things manifest, what it’s like, how they struggle, building understanding rooted in empathy, etc., but understanding the more mechanical parts of them are far better understood through systematic research.

No lie, I am currently editing and revising a blog post about this very thing, namely, that people think they’re qualified to understand the mind and behavior solely on “personal experience,” or anecdotes. This usually only happens in the social sciences. No person—well, maybe creationists and defenders of pseudoscience—would ever say the same about the “hard” sciences. It would be ridiculous to tell people they don’t have to read a physics textbook (or get a physics degree) to understand physics, that all they need to rely on is their personal experience with the physical world. So why should psychology be any different? 

As an effect of a traumatic experience, is long-term depression or suppression of the event more damaging psychologically? — Asked by Anonymous

I don’t know the answer to this question. My knowledge of mental disorders is very limited. Perhaps cognitivedefusion can help you?

{\rtf1\ansi\ansicpg1252{\fonttbl\f0\fnil\fcharset0 HelveticaNeue;}{\colortbl;\red255\green255\blue255;\red68\green68\blue68;\red255\green255\blue255;}\deftab720\pard\pardeftab720\sl380\partightenfactor0\f0\fs28 \cf2 \cb3 \expnd0\expndtw0\kerning0\outl0\strokewidth0 \strokec2 What are your thoughts on the superego suppressing one's id? Do you think it would be healthiest if people were able to match the two motivators as closely as possible?} — Asked by Anonymous

Wow, what’s up with the first half of your question?

Anyhow, I’m not sure how to answer this… The id, ego, and superego were Freud’s attempt to model personality. However influential this model or idea was at the time, it is practically obsolete in contemporary personality psychology and psychology in general. The id, ego, and superego are only briefly mentioned in personality textbooks when talking about the field’s history but that’s about it. Modern personality psychology focuses on the different layers of personality, as outlined by Dan McAdams: personality traits, personal concerns, and identity.

You can read more about these three layers of personality in McAdams’s influential paper, “What Do We Know When We Know a Person?

Thanks for your question!

Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You

Earlier this week I finished reading Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You. I read this book because last year during a brief email exchange with Sam Gosling, I noticed a link to snoopology.com, the book’s website, in his email signature and decided to check it out.

Snoop is based on Sam Gosling’s research of how people leave traces of their personality (behavioral residue) in their physical and virtual environments, and how others interpret these traces to form both accurate and inaccurate impressions of the people inhabiting these spaces. You can learn more about Gosling by snooping his lab website. Also, check out this interview where he talks about his book on NRP Books.

The book is fast-paced, humorous, and informative. In it, Gosling summarizes the research he has done in living spaces and how behavioral residue can inform the observer, or snooper, about the occupant’s personality. When we spend extended periods of time in a place, such as our homes and work spaces, our personality seeps into the environment. An easy way to visualize this is by imagining two bedrooms of two people who vary in conscientiousness. A person high on this trait will have a much cleaner, organized home than a person low on the trait. Someone high on extraversion may have plenty of family photos and photos where the person is being sociable whereas an introvert may have less photos of his or herself in large parties or gatherings.

Furthermore, behavioral residue can extend to other areas of our lives, such as virtual spaces (e.g. personal websites, blogs, social media sites, email addresses) and the way we present ourselves to others (e.g. how we dress, walk, shake hands, display body tattoos). 

The book addresses a number of important questions one should consider when snooping. For example, given that people differ in what they may consider a clean or messy room, is there a high agreement between observers when rating one room as cleaner or messier than another? In other words, are the ratings reliable? More importantly, are these ratings valid? That is, do the ratings actually reflect the occupant’s personality? Likewise, are occupants really leaving behind residue of how they are like or of how they wish to be seen? (The latter could be due to deliberate deception by the occupant but not always.) If it is deliberate deception, how can we tease out the real clues from the fakes clues? Similarly, do we arrange our living/work spaces for our own benefit (serving as self-regulators) or are we doing it to advertise our personalities to others?

Gosling makes it easy to understand the different issues by describing numerous examples of the different places where he has snooped, including the bedrooms of students, and the work spaces of his colleagues, friends, and television personalities. I won’t go any deeper into these issues because that would spoil the book (and where’s the fun in that?).

I recommend this book to any who, like me, is interested in knowing what others are like (and I don’t mean gossip). Why lie, most of us make inferences about people by the way they interact with us and their environments. But it turns out some of the inferences we make are wrong—this book will help you distinguish between useful cues and misleading cues. And even if you aren’t too familiar with personality psychology, Gosling does an excellent job at summarizing the essentials in chapters two (personality traits) and three (personal concerns & identity). 


Lilienfield, S. O., Wood, J. M., & Garb, H. N. (2000). The scientific status of projective techniques. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 1(2), 27-66.

I don’t always reblog posts, but when I do…

Lilienfield, S. O., Wood, J. M., & Garb, H. N. (2000). The scientific status of projective techniques. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 1(2), 27-66.

I don’t always reblog posts, but when I do…

7 Myths About The Brain You Thought Were True

I often see some of these myths in tumblr’s psychology tag.

Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism

I stumbled into this YouTube channel, Healthcare Triage, a few weeks ago and found a couple of videos that are relevant to the blog’s theme. Links open in a new window:

Yay, More “Psychology Facts”

I’ve never been a fan of the feel-good quotes that propagate in social websites. You guys know what I’m talking about, those “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back…blablabla” quotes. I refer to them as fortune cookie wisdom. They sound deep but they’re truly not. I normally roll my eyes at them when they crop up in the psychology tab because they have nothing to do with psychology.

But recently some of these quotes have started to appear with a psychology sign. Heck, the blog that posts them calls itself “Your #1 source of psychology facts.” A large portion of the posts are feel-good quotes that have nothing to do with psychology—they’re more like something a teenager would write to get followers fast. The other portion is filled with oversimplifications of human behavior and mental processes.

Here is a sample of the feel-good quotes that have nothing to do with psychology:

  • “Staying quiet doesn’t mean you’ve got nothing to say. It means you don’t think they’re ready to hear your thoughts.”
  • “Sometimes trusting a friend is the hardest thing to do. Even the closest friends can become your enemies.”
  • “You don’t really need someone to complete you. You only need someone to accept you completely.”
  • “If the relationship doesn’t make you a better person, then you are with the wrong one.”
  • “Distance doesn’t necessarily ruin a relationship. You don’t have to see someone everyday to be in love.”

Again. They have nothing to do with psychological facts. Here’s a sample of the factually ambiguous “facts” with simplistic conclusions:

  • "Intelligent people tend to have less friends than the average person. The smarter you are, the more selective you become."
  • "Women with higher IQ’s have a harder time finding a mate. Intelligent women would rather remain single than be with the wrong person."
  • "Intelligent people tend to care less about the opinions of others, they also enjoy being alone because of great sense of self."
  • "Generally, a woman will only argue with someone she truly cares for. Arguing less occurs when she’s less interested."
  • "Depression is often the result of over thinking, our minds create problems that initially don’t exist."

What distinguishes that latter five statements from the first five is that these are factual claims which can be examined. Not only do the “facts” look fishy, but the explanations for the facts, too, look fishy.

Let’s use the first “fact” as an example:

"Intelligent people tend to have less friends than the average person.

I guess this “fact” is associated with the stereotype of scientists as lonely people who spend all of their lives in pursuit of science. Think of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, who is usually condescending to people of “lesser” intelligence because they can’t keep up with his conversations. But is this really true, or is it simply a cartoonish portrayal of human personality? I can think of several reasons for why this may be true or false based on personal anecdotes, but anecdotes aren’t valid forms of evidence. And unfortunately I couldn’t find any studies that look at intelligence (excluding “emotional intelligence”) and sociability—perhaps some of you can?

For the sake of argument, let’s assume the fact is true and examine the second portion of the claim:

The smarter you are, the more selective you become.”

Again, assuming that intelligent people do have less friends than the average person would not necessarily mean it’s because smarter people are more selective. There could be a number of other explanations: a) smarter people want to spend more time in solitary activities—like thinking or solving puzzles, b) people avoid them because their perceived intelligence comes off as arrogant and condescending, c) people may find their interests boring, d) some other completely different explanation. 

In other words, even if there is a correlation between the two variables, you can’t assume a causal relation. The same applies to the other factual claims posted on the blog. They tell you a dubious “fact” and an even more dubious explanation for the fact.

Most frustrating of all is realizing that these “facts” get reblogged like crazy.