Many of the world’s greatest creative works have been produced by people who struggled immensely with their own mental health. Tortured souls like Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and Sylvia Plath each produced timeless works that have been widely admired in the years since their deaths.
But is a mental health issue a necessary prerequisite for creative success?
To investigate this anecdotal evidence, Swedish researcher Simon Kyaga conducted a study to see if this correlation held up on a large scale. He found that people with creative occupations were more likely to receive treatment for bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia based on a sample of 1.2 million Swedish citizens.
The study showed that people with creative jobs were eight percent more likely to have bipolar disorder than the general population. Writers in particular were 121 percent more likely to be bipolar.
“When you’re manic, you get more things done, but you also get more and wider ideas. And the more ideas you have, the more creative you are,” Kyaga said in an interview with Fast Company.
A 2010 study showed that the dopamine system of a highly creative person is quite similar to that of a person with schizophrenia. The study measured creativity by asking participants to solve problems in several ways. The researchers then looked at the subject’s brain activity, and concluded that the healthy creative brain functions similarly to the schizophrenics.
“Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box,” said Dr. Fredrik Ullén, in an interview with Medical News Today.
There appears to be a genetic component to this trend. Biological relatives of people with schizophrenia are more likely to show exceptional creativity, according to a study in the Creativity Research journal. The researchers hypothesize that children of schizophrenics possess a tendency to think in unconventional modes, but they are not inhibited by the full-blown disorder.
This genetic predisposition may even influence the majors that college students choose. A survey of Princeton’s class of 2014 showed that humanities majors were more likely to have a family member with depression, bipolar disorder or a substance abuse problem. Students who pursued STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering and math) were more likely to have an immediate relative with an autism spectrum disorder.
All of this research does not mean that people should avoid creative activities altogether. A study by Zorana Pringle showed that people who do something creative on a daily basis report a higher sense of well-being than those who do not. Another study showed that expressive writing increases immune system functioning.
It is worth noting that the studies mentioned here point to a correlation between mental illness and creativity, and do not prove a causal link between the two. Research on how mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder affect the brain is still inconclusive. Increased knowledge about these disorders may help people harness their unique creative talents without sacrificing their mental health.