The Link Between Genius and Insanity

The Link Between Genius and Insanity

Many of us are familiar with Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream”, but few know the details of the artist’s life and the inspiration for this evocative piece of art.

Munch, a Norwegian artist who died over 70 years ago, lived a life that was fraught with anxiety and hallucinations. His masterpiece—which is today one of the most recognized paintings in the world—was conceived one evening when the artist was standing on the edges of Oslofjord. Rather than the painting coming to him in an enlightening and victorious flash of inspiration, Munch wrote that, “The sun began to set – suddenly the sky turned blood red; I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an endless scream passing through nature.”

Most art historians today believe this painting represents the angst of modern man, which Munch suffered from to a great degree all throughout his life, but saw this as an indispensable motivator of his art. In his diary, he recorded feeling that: “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

The link between genius and madness which Munch experienced is certainly not unique to the artist; through history, many great creative minds have experienced a similar relationship between talent and torment.

Vincent van Gogh is particularly well known for his madness, owing to the fact that he cut off his ear after an argument with his friend Paul Gauguin, and later ended his own life.

In one of his missives to his brother Theo, penned in 1888, he wrote: “I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me. Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head… at times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse.”

Van Gogh’s illness, well-known as it is, has played a strong role in furthering the widespread perception that madness and genius are intrinsically entwined, and that artists are especially prone to a range of mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, which drive the intense emotions and otherworldly visions expressed in many great works of art.

But correlation, or course, does not guarantee causation, so psychologists stepped in to research the matter in greater depth. Is there indeed a link between madness and genius? It turns out this popular assumption may in fact have some merit.

Creativity’s Shadow

Psychologists began studying the potential link between creating art and mental illness decades ago, beginning by examining many figures eminent in literature and the arts. These preliminary research attempts soon revealed that creativity and mood disorders were bedfellows, showing that Charles Dickens, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, and Eugene O’Neill all most likely suffered from clinical depression. Likewise, Sylvia Plath, one of the greatest poets in history, took her own life by sticking her head in and oven, and the great American artist Jason Pollock medicated his severe depression with alcohol. Pollock’s art often reflected this inner turmoil, such as his disturbing piece “Circumcision” (a title image for this post).

These studies, of course, relied on mere anecdotal evidence and the sampling of a small group of high achievers (and it can be argued, of course, that unusually high achievers across many fields are often driven by inner turmoil).

In order to prove the link between madness and genius, the studies had to become broader and more detailed. To that end, Simon Kyaga, leading a team of researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, delved into a registry of psychiatric patients so that they could monitor nearly 1.2 million Swedes suffering from a diverse range of mental illnesses.

The results, it turns out, did indeed suggest that a link exists between mental illness and creativity that cannot be explained as mere coincidence. All manner of creatives, from dancers, photographers, and authors, were 8% more likely to live with bipolar disorder. Writers actually fared worse than visual artists, being a staggering 121% more prone to the condition. Writers were also twice more likely to end their own lives as the general population. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia, and autism were all found to show up more often in the families of creative types, as well, demonstrating the impact of heredity in both creativity and mental illness.

Keri Szaboles, a psychiatrist at Semmelweis University in Hungary, has investigated this genetic link thoroughly; in a test of 128 people that involved an assessment of creativity and then a blood test, he observed that those who were the most creative also carried a gene associated with severe mental disorders.

The Method Underlying the Madness

So, we know a link between madness and creative genius exists, but what mechanisms underlie this relationship? Psychologists are currently still investigating the matter, but in September 2013 neuroscientist Andreas Fink and his colleagues at the University of Graz in Austria made some interesting headway. Their study, which compared the brains of creative people and people living with schizotypy (a less-severe manifestation of the basic mental patterns which underlie schizophrenia) found that those who scored high in schizotypy and those who scored highest on originality shared similar brain activity. Notably, the right precuneus (a part of the brain involved in attention and focus) was particularly activated during times of idea generation. In simple terms, this means that the brains of those creatives with high levels of schizotypy absorb much more information and have brains which refuse to filter out extraneous details.

According to Scott Barry Kaufman, an American psychologist and writer for Scientific American, “It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible… Because you never know: sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas.”

Not all creatives suffer from this predisposition to mental illness, however; Kyaga states that, interestingly, dancers, directors, and visual artists have a lower incidence of mental illnesses than the general population. and, of course, degrees of mental illness among creatives also vary greatly by individual; while many great artists do indeed “suffer for their art”, not everyone who is artistically gifted is doomed to a life similar to Van Gogh’s.