Is There a Link between Creativity and Mood Disorders? Well, It's a Thorny, Nuanced Issue

By Perry, Susan | MinnPost.com, May 18, 2018 | Go to article overview

Is There a Link between Creativity and Mood Disorders? Well, It's a Thorny, Nuanced Issue


Perry, Susan, MinnPost.com


In an article published this week in Aeon, Christa Taylor, a postdoctoral researcher at the Yale University Center for Emotional Intelligence, takes a fascinating look at the myth of the “mad genius” — the common belief that creativity is inherently linked to depression and other mood disorders.

As Taylor points out, the idea that a mental disorder is a sign of creativity first emerged during the Romantic Era and has been part of popular lore ever since.

But is there any good scientific evidence of this connection? Trying to answer that question raises some “knotty, multi-layered” research-related problems, says Taylor. “It is not as straightforward as just seeing if ‘creativity’ is correlated with ‘mood disorder.’ ”

It’s important, however, that we get a clearer answer to the question, she stresses. The perpetuation of the myth may be discouraging some people from seeking treatment for depression or other mental illness out of the mistaken belief that the treatment might stifle their creativity.

Unconscious biases

As Taylor explains, there are a couple of key reasons why the relationship between mood disorders and creativity has become so entrenched in the public’s mind:

For many, the idea of the ‘creative person’ comes from popular media, which inundates us with news stories and movie portrayals of the suffering artist and the mad genius. And there are anecdotal accounts closer to our real lives: many of us have heard stories about someone who suffers from a deep depression — but also creates beautiful poetry. Repeatedly hearing these accounts fuels a stereotype. When we frequently see two unique things (eg, extraordinary creativity and mood disorders) occur together, they become paired in our minds, creating what is termed an illusory correlation.

This effect is compounded by the availability heuristic, wherein we judge how common something is by how easily it comes to mind. If our mental representation of a creative person is based on this notion of genius and disorder, it will be easier to remember creative people who have a disorder, rather than those that don’t. This makes the connection seem more common.

These two types of biases occur unconsciously and are often beyond our control. It is only by studying the issue scientifically, limiting our bias to the greatest extent possible, that we can we truly understand if creativity is related to mood disorders.

Looking at the evidence

Existing research into a possible link between creativity and mood disorders can be divided into three categories: 1) comparisons of the instances of mood disorders exhibited by creative people and by less-creative people, 2) comparisons of the creativity of people with mood disorders and those without, and 3) examinations of whether the symptoms of mood disorders are correlated with creativity (usually in studies involving general or student populations).

Taylor conducted a meta-analysis (an analysis of all the previous studies on the topic) for each of the three approaches. She found that “[a]lthough creative people do exhibit a greater instance of all types of mood disorders when compared with less-creative people (except for dysthymia, a chronic and less severe depressive disorder), the analysis comparing the creativity of individuals with a mood disorder to those with no mental disorder was more nuanced. The creativity of people with a mood disorder did not differ from those without.”

As Taylor points out, the studies used in her meta-analyses have biases that may have tilted their findings in favor of a link between creativity and mood disorders. For example, studies that investigated whether people with mood disorders exhibit greater creativity than those without often used creative occupations as a proxy for creative ability. That’s a problem, as Taylor explains:

The creative occupations considered in these studies are overwhelmingly in the arts, which frequently provide greater autonomy and less rigid structure than the average nine-to-five job. …

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