Sunday, August 17, 2014

Creativity and Mental Illness, Continued

Maria Konnikova has a nice little essay at the New Yorker on whether artistic creativity is hereditary. She touches on one of my perennial topics, the connections between art and madness:
In 2009, Szabolcs Kéri, a psychiatrist and physiologist at Semmelweis University specializing in psychiatric disorders, was exploring a seemingly unrelated puzzle: why severe mental disorders that had a significant genetic basis persisted in the gene pool. Part of the answer, he found, was that some of those same mutations carried a highly positive trait as well: high creative ability. When he tested a specific polymorphism, or mutation, that was associated with a heightened risk of psychosis, he found that its carriers were also far more creative. They scored higher on all the measures of creativity that Kéri tested: originality, flexibility in thinking, and verbal fluency. He speculated that creativity and psychosis share an important feature: reduced cognitive inhibition, or a lower threshold for entertaining alternative thoughts and realities. (The neuroscientist and psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen wouldn’t be surprised by his results. She has spent her career tracking families in which creative talent is accompanied by a history of depression and mental illness. Galton, too, albeit in characteristically less politically correct fashion, noted, “I have been surprised at finding how often insanity or idiocy has appeared among the near relatives of exceptionally able men.”) 
Galton meaning Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's cousin and a pioneer of nineteenth-century psychology. I once thought that modern statistical analysis would debunk the ancient belief that art and madness go together, but it seems that science is instead confirming what we always believed.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

Isn't madness merely the ability to seriously believe in outcomes that experience dictates are impossible?

For example, the notion that a person can fly unaided is madness - anyone who repeatedly jumps off their roof and honestly expects to take wing and soar through the sky, we all would agree is insane.

But by the same token, in the world before powered flight became a reality, the notion that a person could fly even with aid seemed just as insane. All human experience throughout all of history suggested it was impossible. Many people had tried, and most of them came to bad ends in the process. People KNEW that the fastest speeds ever attainable by humans in all of recorded history were on horseback, or on a very swift ship with a strong wind, or aboard a steam locomotive. The thought of a human being traveling 50 miles per hour or more was insanity. And knowing this, they KNEW that no human could get a heavier-than-air machine to fly, because there was no way, even with steam technology, to provide sufficient power to such a device without making it too heavy to take out.

But then Alberto Santos-Dumont pulled it off, publicly and verifiably, in his combustion powered "14-bis" biplane, and later astounded the world by circling over Paris in his "Demoiselle", well before the Wrights ever publicly flew their flyer.

Before, he was considered by some to be quite mad. After, he was a triumphal hero celebrated around the world for having done what everyone had KNOWN was impossible.

It's a strange balancing act, to be sure. Creativity and imagination can allow us to exceed the limitations of what experience tells us is possible, but in excess they can drive us to destruction and ruin. Finding the right measure of creativity, but grounding it in enough reason and practicality to not end in catastrophe, is a trick no one has truly mastered.