She insisted she killed people with her mind. She was a creator and destroyer of worlds. She also found new ways to comprehend the wisdom of Aristotle and earned four prestigious academic degrees across varying disciplines with top grades and high achievements. She struggled with a diagnosis of schizophrenia yet created a life for herself, complete with a tenured faculty position and a loving husband.
I’m referring to Elyn Saks, a 2009 recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant and the author of the moving memoir The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness. Near the end of her book she cites a long list of talented artists who suffered from “affective” disorders, including what was once called manic depression. Those diagnosed with bipolar disorder and others with affective disorders can rattle off names from that list, she wrote, saying with pride their affiliation with the likes of Van Gogh and Hemingway. But Saks suffers from a “thought” disorder, the category for schizophrenics. Affective disorders involve changes in mood. Thought disorders are, not surprisingly, thought-based. When in a full-blown psychotic episode she cannot comprehend reality. Demons dance around her, unseen voices command her, and the people closest to her are imposters. Whatever mood she might be in at the time is secondary.
There aren’t many successful predecessors that a thought-disorder patient can cling to. She cites Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, whose story is told in the film A Beautiful Mind, but notes the creative thinking that led to his Nobel came before his psychosis fully formed. After that the focus was on ensuring that he could operate with some autonomy–walk across campus unsupervised, etc.–but his creative mind was largely separated from productivity.
So what lessons to my study of the creative process did I draw from Saks’ book? A number of things:
- While mental illness has long been coupled with creativity, when we see it in the creative arts it is typically affective disorders the artists suffer from.
- Creativity can flourish in a thought-disordered mind as well, but the nature of that diagnosis makes it more difficult for the creative mind to produce works resulting from the creativity.
- The thought-disordered mind’s creativity may not necessarily be art-focused. Nash’s thinking was surely whole-brained, but math skills are considered left-brain activities. Saks repeatedly says in her memoir that she has no artistic talent whatsoever, yet her mind clearly is creative; she has forged a new fusion of academic study combining law, philosophy and psychology in her studies as a tenured faculty member at USC.
- These data points remind us that creativity remains a factor of nature as much as it is nurture.
This last point can be a tricky one. In my years of study of creativity I have frequently encountered cases suggesting a direct connection between the nature of a person’s brain and their level of, and type of, creativity. I wrote about Einstein’s brain recently, and I find myself thinking of the autistic teenager who can play any song he hears, the son of two deaf parents who has taught himself to play piano and sing based solely on listening to songs on his iPod. What is tricky about citing this continuing connection between biology and creativity? It smacks against our belief that we are all creative, and the only thing holding us back from being the next Van Gogh or Hemingway is an insufficient amount of nurturing of our muse.
Yes, we are all creative. I believe that we are all blessed with neural pathways waiting to be stimulated to magnificent creative output, whether it is the development of game theory of painting “Starry Night.” I advocate for empowering children to explore creative thinking through the arts and across all academic disciplines. But I also recognize that some people–through genetic inheritance or a random development in their brains–can see the world in ways the rest of us can’t. Sometimes we refer to it as “talent.” Whatever its label, it is real.
In The Center Cannot Hold, Saks discusses the stigma that we hold in modern society toward the mentally ill. Aware of that stigma, she spends most of the book withholding certain truths about her diagnosis and her past in job interviews, in friendships, and throughout her life. She watches TV and sees how the mentally ill are portrayed, too often as violent criminals. Starting as a law student, continuing with the publication of her book, and spurred further by her MacArthur genius grant, she has been a crusader for greater public awareness of mental illness and the need for us to lose our ignorance-driven stigmas surrounding those with mental-health diagnoses. I suspect that one way we can all become more accepting of those of us in our society with mental illness diagnoses is to celebrate the good that can come from their conditions, including the brilliant art and insights they produce.
We can’t expect every bipolar sufferer to be the next Hemingway, just as Saks instructs us not to expect a schizophrenic to become, like her, a tenured law professor. But if we let go of the notion that we are all somehow equal in our creativity, and the only thing separating us is the extent to which we fully unleash it, then perhaps we can give the truly creative mentally ill some credit, and honor them for something they have that we may not. It’s a start.
ADDENDUM ON NOVEMBER 9, 2013: I am so grateful for the insightful and honest comments I am seeing on this blog post. I love the conversation that occurs on this blog; every blogger should envy the amazing readers I have. And my apologies for the delay in response to many of the comments. WordPress for some reason didn’t alert me to most of them, so I have only now, after going back to the original post, discovered the wonderful conversation occurring here.