Creativity and mental illness
December 6, 2005
Dr. Daniel Nettle, a psychologist at Newcastle University, and Helen Clegg, at the Open University in Milton Keynes in the UK, have carried out an interesting survey on schizophrenics [download PDF file]. This form of mental ill-health is so debilitating that those with the condition are often socially isolated, have trouble maintaining relationships and consequently reproduce at a much lower rate than the general population. However, cases of schizophrenia remain high--perhaps 1% of the population. "On the face of it, Darwinism would suggest that the genes leading to schizophrenia would eventually disappear from the gene pool," said Dr. Nettle. The word is that they don't disappear. They may have gone underground.
And just who are these silent "carriers"? In the survey, schizophrenics, regular folks, and yep, artists were tested. In 425 responses, they found that artists and schizophrenics scored equally high on "unusual cognition," a trait that gives rise to the tendency to feel in between reality and a dream state, or to feel overwhelmed by one's own thoughts. But the artists and schizophrenics scored very differently on something else called "introvertive anhedonia"--social withdrawal and emotional emptiness. Unlike schizophrenics, artists, in line with the general population, scored very low on this one. According to Dr. Nettle, the results suggest that the creativity of some artists is fuelled by the unique world-view that mental illness can provide, but without the debilitating part. Indeed, by directing their energy into artistic projects, these artists may be sidestepping their schizophrenic tendencies. Furthermore, the second part of the survey found that compared with the general population, artists claimed to have had twice as many partners since the age of 18--and the number of partners increased with the seriousness with which they pursued their art.
Dr. Nettle believes that this provides an answer to some long-asked questions. Some of the genes that predispose to schizophrenia might be carried by artists--and in many cases will play a part in directing their creativity--but because artists tend also not to develop full-blown schizophrenia, they simply pass the bad genes onto their kids. Artists' unusual take on the world and their ability to channel creativity, makes them desirable and therefore likely to be good breeders. In other words, artists, especially those who stand out, are in themselves aphrodisiacs.
PS: "What a pile of crap. Don't expect honesty from artists at any time. Massive delicate egos and a myopic view of reality don't make for any kind of study. Artists aren't that special." (Dinos Chapman, The Guardian, UK)
Esoterica: Whenever artists' legendary hanky-panky is mentioned, as it often is, names like Picasso are dragged out. Fact is he was a complex of guilt, drive, manipulation, ego, sublimation and libido. But I'm wondering if a lot of artists might be unusually chaste. Somehow, so many of us just seem too busy. As usual, I could be wrong. I love being wrong. "I put my orgasms on canvas." (Pablo Picasso)