Précis of The creative mind: Myths and mechanisms – Margaret A. Boden


What is creativity? One new idea may be creative, whereas another is merely new: What’s the difference? And how is creativity possible? These questions about human creativity can be answered, at least in outline, using computational concepts. There are two broad types of creativity, improbabilist and impossibilist. Improbabilist creativity involves (positively valued) novel combinations of familiar ideas. A deeper type involves METCS: the mapping, exploration, and transformation of conceptual spaces. It is impossibilist, in that ideas may be generated which – with respect to the particular conceptual space concerned – could not have been generated before. (They are made possible by some transformation of the space.) The more clearly conceptual spaces can be defined, the better we can identify creative ideas. Defining conceptual spaces is done by musicologists, literary critics, and historians of art and science. Humanist studies, rich in intuitive subtleties, can be complemented by the comparative rigour of a computational approach. Computational modelling can help to define a space, and to show how it may be mapped, explored, and transformed. Impossibilist creativity can be thought of in “classical” Al terms, whereas connectionism illuminates improbabilist creativity. Most Al models of creativity can only explore spaces, not transform them, because they have no self-reflexive maps enabling them to change their own rules. A few, however, can do so. A scientific understanding of creativity does not destroy our wonder at it, nor does it make creative ideas predictable. Demystification does not imply dehumanization.


Creativity and Mental Illness

Laura Gosselink

Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence–whether much that is glorious–whether all that is profound–does not spring from disease of thought–from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night – Edgar Allen Poe

When you are insane, you are busy being insane – all the time… When I was crazy, that’s all I was. – Sylvia Plath

Is creative genius somehow woven together with “madness”? According to the dictionary, “to create” is “to bring into being or form out of nothing.” Such a powerful, mysterious, and even impossible act must surely be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry! No wonder creativity has for so long been “explained” as the expression of an irrational, intuitive psychic “underground” teaming with forces (perhaps divine) that are unknown and unknowable (at least to the “sane,” conventional mind). The ancient Greeks believed creative inspiration was achieved through altered states of mind such as “divine madness.” Socrates said: “If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the inspired madman” (8). Creative inspiration – particularly artistic inspiration — has often been thought to require the sampling of dark “depths” of irrationality while maintaining at least some connection to everyday reality. This dive into underground forces “reminds one of a skin-diver with a breathing tube” wrote Arthur Koestler in his influential book, The act of creation (8). According to Koestler, “the creative act always involves a regression to earlier, more primitive levels on the mental hierarchy, while other processes continue simultaneously on the rational surface.” Using similar themes, the great scientific figure, Kekule described a visionary moment leading to his groundbreaking discovery that the benzene molecule is a ring. His creative break with the prevailing assumption that all molecules were based on two-ended strings of atoms came in a blazing flash of insight:

“I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes…. [My mental eye] could distinguish larger structures, of manifold conformation; long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snakelike motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke.” (2).

Like Kekule, people recognized for their creative genius often depict moments of inspiration as an electrifying convergence of rational and irrational thought. If there is an edge to be found between the rational and the irrational; between the known and the unknown; between the conventional and the innovative, and if this edge is where creativity takes place, it makes sense that a creative mind runs the risk of going “too far.” As Koestler has put it, “skin-divers are prone to fall victim to “the rapture of the deep” and tear their breathing tubes off”(8). Artists Ernest Hemmingway, Virginia Woolf, Charles Parker, and John Berryman would appear to have torn away their breathing tubes when they entered psychiatric hospitals and eventually committed suicide (1). Further reinforcing the association of creativity with illogical, disruptive psychic forces are great numbers of influential 18th and 19th century poets, including William Blake, Lord Byron and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote about their emotional extremes of experience. For example, George Edward Woodberry wrote of poets: ” Emotion is the condition of their existence; passion is the element of their being.” (1). And the turbulent lives of high profile musicians and artists such as Charles Mingus, Georgia O’Keefe, Jackson Pollack, and Sylvia Plath also seem to testify to a link between creativity and psychic instability. But can a connection between mental disorder and enhanced creativity be identified by the methods of science? Is there really a connection, and if so how does it work?

“When a superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce,” wrote psychologist William James as the twentieth century began, “we have the best possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries. Such men do not remain mere critics and understanders with their intellect. Their ideas posses them, they inflict them, for better or worse, upon their companions of their age” (8). James and contemporary scientists such as psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin emphasized the positive aspects of certain psychological disorders, and speculated that other talents could combine with them to produce extraordinary creativity. But James also stressed the debilitating extremes of psychiatric illness(8). This moderate view, underscoring the need for balance in an effectively creative person, has since characterized much thinking on the subject of creativity and mental disturbance. As Sylvia Plath later said, “When you are insane, you are busy being insane – all the time… When I was crazy, that’s all I was”(5). Against this background, some current research into the interaction between creativity and psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder and depression suggests that their may indeed be a vital connection between “genius” and “insanity” in some instances.

Kay Redfield Jamison is a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who has talked openly and honestly about her own manic depressive emotional instability. Her review of current research leads her to conclude that a large number of established artists – “far more than could be expected by chance” – can be diagnosed with bipolar disorder or major depression (4). Jamison believes that several corroborating diagnostic and psychological analyses of living artistic populations provide meaningful evidence that highly creative people experience major mood disorders more often than do other groups in the general population. So for her there is a clear link between psychic instability and creativity. But Jamison warns against simplistic notions of the “mad genius.” She points out that most emotionally unstable people are not extraordinarily creative, and most extraordinarily creative people are not emotionally unstable. She then asks the question: how might mania or depression contribute to creative accomplishment?

The characteristics of milder forms of mania are very similar to creative thought, Jamison asserts. Acutely tuned senses, restlessness, irritability, grandiosity, thought diversity, and the ability to associate divergent ideas and thoughts rapidly are all hallmarks of both the creative and mildly manic (or “hypomanic”) individual. Jamison describes two features central to both creative and hypomanic thought. First, thought is fluid, rapid, and flexible. In addition, there is heightened ability to merge ideas and thoughts that have no conventional connection. (4). Many psychologists, Jamison points out, have emphasized the importance of fluid, quick, and divergent thinking in producing new, original, and “creative” ideas. Rapidity of thought itself spurs creativity. “Because of the more rapid flow of ideas,” Psychologist Eugene Bleuler explains, “and especially because of the falling off of inhibitions, artistic activities are facilitated even though something worth while is produced only in very mild cases and when the patient is otherwise talented in this direction. The heightened senses naturally have the effect of furthering this.” (8). Observing an incredible outpouring of uncensored mental activity by his manic friend Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott said: “The wheels of a machine to play rapidly must not fit with the utmost exactness else the attrition diminish the Impetus.” (8). But the sheer volume or density of ideas spewing from a manic person’s mind increases the likelihood that at least some of those ideas will be creative ones. A person who goes to bat a million times is more likely to get a hit than someone who only steps to the plate a few hundred times.

Manic people also have demonstrably increased ability to form new and different associations between words. In laboratory tests, the number of “statistically common” responses to tested words fell by one-third and the number of “original” responses increased three-fold(8). This qualitative change in mental processing “may well facilitate the formation of unique ideas and associations,” Jamison asserts.

In contrast to the fiery energy with which mania infuses creativity, is the cold, ruminative, introspection of depression. It is widely accepted that insight gained through intense, extreme, even painful experiences can add depth and meaning to creative work. Poet Anne Sexton explained how she used pain in her work: “I, myself, alternate between hiding behind my own hands, protecting myself anyway possible, and this other, this seeing ouching other. I guess I mean that creative people must not avoid the pain that they get dealt…. Hurt must be examined like a plague.” (8).

The creative person who suffers from manic-depression also has what Jamison calls “a built-in editing process” for the excesses and sometime lunacies expressed during manic episodes. Mild depression can actually put into perspective what had seemed, in a manic-state, to be brilliant. One is better suited to truly discover what ideas may be brilliant or creative out of the hodge-podge of ideas spewed from the manic mind. In fact, research has shown that people in mildly depressed states are more “realistic” than people in “normal” states of mind(8). Observations and beliefs produced during mild depression are closer to “reality” than those produced in “normal” states of mind. This supports T.S. Eliots’ observation that “human kind cannot bear much reality” (8).

In the face of too much reality, creative work can be turned to as a solace and a means of working out of a depressive episode, Jamison says. George Bernard Shaw wrote that if you can’t get rid of the family skeleton, you might as well make it dance “(5). And T.S. Eliot, working through a bout of depression, wrote: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotions, but an escape from emotions, it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotion, know what it means to want to escape from those things” (8). By this reasoning, if you routinely keep an even emotional “keel,” there’s not much impetus to behave creatively.

Thus, although it is certainly not the case that all creative individuals suffer from manic depression, it seems that characteristics of mania and depression aid the development and expression of creative thought and action. Mania combines new and heretofore unconnected ideas at a rapid pace and has even been shown to elevate IQ scores(8). Mania also imbues the individual with relentless drive and confidence that can, very often, lead to creative output. Balancing mania, depression not only can serve as a “reality-check” to manic excesses of thought and action, but also can itself provide fuel for creativity.

What does this mean for treatment? “I want to keep those sufferings,” said artist Edvard Munch. When told he could end his cycle of psychiatric hospitalizations with available treatment, he replied that emotional torments “are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and it would destroy my art” (8). As Jamison points out, many creative people are reluctant to be transformed by psychiatric treatment into “normal, well-adjusted, dampened, and bloodless souls” no longer moved to create(8). And their fears may not be unfounded. Current psychotropic drug therapies can offer some relief from the painful, destructive features of mania and depression. But according to Jamison, there is a price to pay — these drugs can “dampen a person’s general intellect and limit his or her emotional and perceptual range”(8). As a result, many people with mood disorders stop taking these medications. The tragic consequences include emotional extremes that intensify over time and can lead to psychosis or death. These consequences should not be romanticized.

Jamison argued that the methods of science identify, in the case of bipolar and depressive disorders, some truth behind the persistent cultural notion of a vital link between genius and insanity. Clearly our existence as a human community would be diminished without the “genius” responsible for scientific breakthrough or for what we respond to as great musical, literary, and visual works of art. If this genius sometimes grows up in suffering, it seems that the pain of a few of us benefits all of us. If we appreciate the gifts these creative people have given us, they deserve our understanding and careful consideration. Treatment should seek to find a balance preserving crucial human emotions and experiences while alleviating destructive extremes.

Near infrared spectroscopy brain scans of schizotypes, schizophrenics and normal controls during creative thinking tasks. Credit: Vanderbilt University

Fine Line Revealed Between Creativity and Insanity

History suggests that the line between creativity and madness is a fine one, but a small group of people known as schizotypes are able to walk it with few problems and even benefit from it.

A new study confirms that their enhanced creativity may come from using more of the right side of the brain than the rest of us.

In the spectrum between normal and insane, schizotypes generally fall somewhere in the middle. While they do not suffer many of the symptoms affecting schizophrenics, including paranoia, hallucinations and incoherent thoughts, schizotypes often exhibit their own eccentricities.

“They may dress or carry themselves in a strange way,” says Bradley Folley, a graduate student in clinical psychology at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and the lead author of the study. “They’re not abnormal, they live normal lives but they often have idiosyncratic ways of thinking. Certain things may have special meaning for them or they may be more spiritually attuned.”

Problem solving

The link between creativity and psychosis has largely been based on anecdotal evidence and correlation studies. The Vanderbilt study is the first to investigate the creative process experimentally using brain-imaging techniques.

The researchers defined creativity as the ability to generate something new and useful from existing products or ideas.

“Creativity at its base is associative,” Folley toldLiveScience. “It’s taking things that you might see and pass by everyday and using them in a novel way to solve a new problem.”

The researchers conducted two experiments to compare the creative thinking processes of schizotypes, schizophrenics and normal control subjects.

In the first experiment, subjects were shown a variety of household objects and asked to come up with new functions for them.

For example, all three groups would be asked to come up with possible uses for a needle and thread. While the normal and schizophrenic controls came up with pretty typical responses like sewing or stitching, one schizotype said that if a person was poor but wanted to get engaged, he could use the thread to make a ring and use the needle to write “I Love You,” in the sand.

Picture this

In the second experiment, the three groups were again asked to come up with creative uses for everyday objects, but this time their brains were monitored using a brain-imaging technique called near-infrared optical spectroscopy.

The scans showed that both sides of the brain in all three groups were active when making novel associations. However, in the brains of schizotypes, the activation of the right hemisphere was much higher compared to brains of the control subjects.

Folley speculates that what may be happening is that schizotypes may either have more access to the right hemisphere than the average population or there may be more efficient communication between the two hemispheres.

The finding is detailed online in the journal Schizophrenia Research.

Creativity and Insanity More Alike Than You Think

Genius and MadnessThere is a common notion that there is only a fine line between creativity and insanity. A small group of people known as schizotypes may essentially live on that line.

Between Genius and Madness

Schizotypes fall in the midpoint between sanity and insanity. They do not suffer most of the symptoms of schizophrenia, such as paranoia and hallucinations, but they often exhibit both eccentricities and enhanced creativity. A new study confirms that both may come from their using more of the right side of the brain than the rest of us.

Scanning  Your Brain

The link between creativity and aberrant behavior has generally been based on anecdotal evidence. The new study used brain-imaging techniques to investigate the creative process in an experimental manner, with “creativity” being defined as the ability to generate something new and useful from pre-existing materials or ideas.

The researchers compared the creative thinking processes of schizotypes, schizophrenics, and normal control subjects.

Schizotypes Used Their Right Brain More

Scans showed that both sides of the brain in all three types were active when making novel associations. But in schizotypes, the activity in the right hemisphere was much higher when compared to the control subjects, and they also came up with a wider variety of creative ideas.

It was theorized that schizotypes may have more access to the right hemisphere of the brain, or that they may exhibit more efficient communication between the two hemispheres.

Live Science September 7, 2005

Is there a link between madness and creativity?

Many illustrious thinkers and poets, including Shakespeare, have believed that genius is only a step away from insanity. John Walsh goes in search of evidence in our contemporary culture

“The only performance that makes it,” Mick Jagger’s rock star advises James Fox’s gangster in Performance, “is the one that achieves madness.” This embracing of derangement has been a debating-point in our experience of art for centuries, and is found everywhere today. In Peter Shaffer’s Equus, recently revived in London’s West End, a psychiatrist called Martin Dysart wrestles with the problem of “curing” the mad-but-ecstatic teenager Alan Strang: how can he force Strang to relinquish his communion with a horse God and return to an “utterly worshipless” normality? Shouldn’t the boy be “allowed” to be insane, when it gives him something to worship?

In a much-discussed TV documentary last year, The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Stephen Fry explained that hundreds of highly intelligent, creative people have been diagnosed with the condition, before telling the world (with a hint of pride) “I have extremes of moods that are greater than just about anybody else I know.” He revealed that many victims of “bipolar disorder” preferred to endure the aching chasms of depression without therapy or drugs, because of the creative high they experienced in the manic stage. “I wouldn’t be without it,” he said “for all the tea in China.” The former pop star Adam Ant (Stuart Goddard) and the glamour model Sophie Anderton have also revealed themselves to be sufferers, as have Robbie Williams and Caroline Aherne.

At Tate Britain, where the paintings of the homicidally mad Richard Dadd are on display, we can inspect Dadd’s mysterious The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, which he painted while in Bethlem Hospital, sent there after stabbing his father to death in 1843, thinking him the devil in disguise (he thought he was personally under the power of the Egyptian god, Osiris). Many art lovers have looked at his fairy paintings, at the microscopic exactness of his tiny figures, human and grotesque, and concluded that no sane person could have managed such intricacy. They are, it’s been said, “positive symptoms of insanity.”

Do the mad have access to hidden worlds of imagination, denied to the sane? Is madness the final frontier of art and science? Is genius only a step away from insanity? Many artists and writers, scientists, philosophers and intellectuals have thought so in the past. “Great wits are sure to madness near allied/ And thin partitions do their bounds divide” wrote John Dryden in 1681. The idea of creativity as divine afflatus, the breath of God, turns easily into the divine fire, that ignites the imagination but consumes the thinker. Inspiration may suffice for the minor thinker, writer or inventor; but only the divine furor will do for the world-changing genius.

In the 20th century, as quantum mechanics made the world of physics increasingly unknowable, the “mad scientist” and Einstein-haired boffin became comic figures, men deranged by their excessive devotion to the not-yet-known. In past centuries, poets gave themselves airs as divinely maddened. Celebrating Christopher Marlowe in 1627, the poet Michael Drayton approved “that fine madness still he did retain/ Which rightly should possess a poet’s brain.” It should? William Wordsworth, never himself a candidate for the funny farm, averred, “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness/ But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.” The first line was adapted by Eileen Simpson for her book Poets in Their Youth, a memoir of the poetic circle that surrounded Robert (“Cal”) Lowell and John Berryman in the 1950s and 1960s, when they were contenders for the title of America’s Top Poet. Lowell suffered frequent bouts of mental illness; Berryman killed himself and left a note that read, “Your move, Cal.”

Shakespeare himself identified the connection in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Theseus reflects on the creative act of turning unknown and unearthly things into words:

“The lunatic, the lover and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact./ One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,/ That is, the madman…/ The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,/ Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven/ And, as imagination bodies forth/ The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen/ Turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name.”

But what do we make, today, of lunatics and poets, scientists and fruitcakes? Do we still see a link between creativity and madness? For Professor Philip Thomas, of Lancaster University’s psychology department, the answer is a qualified yes: “It’s certainly interpreted that way. There have always been people in societies and cultures who have different experiences of reality compared with the majority, and there’s always been an overlap between people who have those gifts, or insights, and people who are identified as suffering from mental illnesses.”

What’s the distinguishing factor about the mentally ill writer or scientist? “Strangeness,” he says firmly. “It’s the strangeness of people’s experience, and what they try to communicate about it, that’s dangerous, threatening, anxiety-provoking to those of us who have conventional rationalities, if I can put it that way. Those people often seem to be visionaries, shamans, people with privileged access to a world which ordinary mortals don’t have access to – either that or they’re seen as brilliantly creative. In the past 400 years, there’s been a tendency to see certain people, from our own time as well as retrospectively, as great minds, geniuses and brilliant thinkers but also as people who showed signs of mental instability.”

Artists, he says, do not have it all to themselves; scientists suffer just as much from “manic creativity”. He instances John Nash, as played by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind – a great mathematician who watched himself gradually losing his reason. “He was seeing something denied to the rest of us,” says Professor Thomas. “The trouble is, such people are trying to put the unspeakable into words. But since the time of Plato and Aristotle, we’ve been preoccupied with the idea of the rational, self-aware, speaking self, using language understandable by (omega) others. Those who experience madness are cut off from the mainstream of western thought and society.”

How does it feel from the point of view of the sufferer? Sara Maitland, 56, is a prize-winning novelist and short-story writer, the author of several works of theology and gardening, and a teacher in creative writing. She has also, since her teens, suffered from visitations of mental disarray. “I was very young in the late 1960s, and there was a glamour about madness, in those Laingian days. I wasn’t eating or looking after myself or ‘conducting myself in a proper manner’,” she says, emphasising the last words with bolshy-schoolgirl scorn. “I used to react excessively to things. I’d lie down in the street and weep and wail.” She went to a mental hospital. “I wasn’t sectioned, I took myself there, though I didn’t have a lot of choice. I was on drugs off and on. Of course, this was some time before the voices.”

It’s piquant to listen to this charming, ferociously gifted woman chatting about the voices which settled in her head over the years. “I’ve never believed it’s a completely external, fully embodied voice,” she says. “Some people do. I always know that they’re something to do with my imagination. I tend to record them, write what they say in notebooks.” What do they say? “It tends to be pretty hyper; they talk in fairly Biblical language.” Are they male or female? “I’ve a set of voices and they’re very different. I give them names to make them more manageable. Not personal names, but descriptions – the Dwarf, the Angel, the Little Girl. They have vocal timbres to go with their names.” Was her writing improved by the voices? “Yes, I think they give me better insights. In my second novel, Virgin Territory, I tried to use the voices directly, to incorporate them. It was exhausting. Once is quite enough for that.”

She concedes that some mentally ill people revel in performance. “Patients get into a state where they say, ‘I’m more anorexic than you, I’m suffering more, I’m madder than anyone else.’ And writers do that too. All artists are show-offs.” Did she think mentally disturbed people produced valuable work as a result of their disability? “I don’t want to say that evil psychiatrists and the Government are trying to stop the production of wonderful artworks, because it’s more complicated than that. But I’d say there’s a connection between those kinds of excitements and imaginative excitements. Which doesn’t mean every artist has to be psychotic, nor that every psychotic is an artist.”

What is Sara suffering from? Don’t, if you know what’s good for you, mention the S-word near Ms Maitland. “I don’t think schizophrenia exists, although there’s a long list of symptoms associated with it. I’ve a friend who was interviewed by a nurse looking for symptoms of schizophrenia. She asked such stupid questions that my friend laughed – and the nurse ticked another box, because ‘inappropriate laughter’ is another symptom.” She whinnies with indignation. “If you sent a supposed schizophrenic to different psychiatric consultants around the country, no two people would come up with the same diagnosis. Well, you wouldn’t go to hospital to have your appendix out if they’d given you five different diagnoses, would you?” She sees the word as “a put-down word, that makes you lose your fundamental human rights, makes you have compulsory treatment, makes you take medicine which no one says will make you better and often makes you worse.”

What really annoys her is the way that psychiatrists lump different altered states under the same umbrella. “I said to a psychiatrist that there must be something wrong, when people are unable to distinguish between Peter Sutcliffe [the Yorkshire Ripper] and William Blake [who as a boy saw angels sitting in a tree on Peckham Rye, ‘bright wings bespangling every bough like stars’] and he said, ‘There’s no difference.’ I said, ‘Excuse me, there’s a massive difference between writing a lot of beautiful but rather strange poetry and going out and murdering a lot of women.” She wants to establish a respectable pedigree for hearing voices. “In the days of Joan of Arc, a whole range of options were advanced about why she was afflicted by voices. That range is dead. Now, if you hear voices, you’re a loony. That’s what I want to challenge.”

Professor Thomas shares her views. He doesn’t believe in schizophrenia either, labelling it “a made-up 19th-century-Greek word which has no meaning and no longer has any useful value.” He talks instead about “states of mind in intense distress, that exist in a form of psychosis” but is wary of recommending standard treatments. “Some patients find psychiatric treatment helpful, and if they want that, fine. Many find it harmful, in which case they shouldn’t be forced to have it. I think psychiatry should spend more time developing ways of helping people make sense of their distressing experiences because, in a way, that’s what creativity is about. If we did, we wouldn’t get into such hassles over the need to impose treatment and lock people up.”

Like a man regretting the decline of novel reading and the rise of the DVD, Thomas sees a lack of curiosity in human psychology. “These days, as part of the wider changes in our culture, we’re less interested in ways of understanding the human condition that rely on detailed analyses of people’s inner worlds. We’re more interested in ourselves as neurochemical beings. Thirty years ago, if you were in a bar in New York at weekends, they’d be talking about what their analyst said the other day. Today, they’ll be talking about Prozac and its effects. We’re interested in more superficial, glib, easy-fit narratives as ways of understanding ourselves.”

Maitland, meanwhile, doesn’t want to lose the noisy companions in her head. “The point is not to drug the voices out of existence, but to negotiate with them. Really, it’s just the same as having a lot of ill-behaved toddlers in the house. You tell your health visitor, ‘My toddlers are driving me round the bend,’ and she says, ‘Oh, hit them over the head and drown them.’ But you don’t want to kill them. You just want them to behave.”

Ages of the mind A brief history of treatments for mental illness – from witch-burning to electroconvulsive therapy


Cave paintings from the Stone Age seem to show trepanning – drilling a hole into the skull, and suggest that people thought it would cure mental disorders.


At Memphis, the temple of Imhotep (below), became a medical school. Successful psychiatric treatment was attributed to amulets or gods.

After 460BC

Hippocrates wrote 76 treatises which are still the foundations of modern medicine and psychiatry. He described melancholia, postpartum psychosis, mania, phobias and paranoia.

After 400BC

Plato (above right) proposed a view of the soul (psyche) as a charioteer driving two horses, one noble, the other driven by base desires. The charioteer struggles to balance their conflicting impulses.

9th century

Rhazes (865-925), later called the Persian Galen, was chief physician at Baghdad hospital where there was a psychiatric ward. The Arabs had no fear of demons, so patients were treated kindly.

11th century

In Salerno university Constantinus Africanus, a Jew who became a Christian, translated Hippocrates from Arabic into Latin. The nervous system was examined and the brain seen as the seat of mental illness.

Middle Ages

In the early days of the Bethlem hospital (Bedlam), which began to care for people with mental health problems in the 12th century, patients were treated with concern and issued with arm badges to wear so that they could be returned to hospital if their symptoms recurred.

14th century

People with mental health problems were considered to be witches (above) and were the victims of persecution rather than treatment.

16th century

Johann Weyer (1515-1588) emphasised that illnesses attributed to witches came from natural causes, and made the revolutionary demand that witches should themselves be sent to physicians for treatment.

17th century

There was a belief that if people behaved like animals, they should be treated like animals. Thomas Willis, a neuroanatomist and doctor, said: “The primary object is naturally curative discipline, threats, fetters and blows are needed as much as medical treatment.”

18th century

Asylums were built to house people with mental health problems separately from houses of correction and poor houses. The wealthy could become a private patient of a doctor or clergyman. The beginnings of psychology as a separate discipline.

19th century

Several psychologists developed theories concerning neuroses. Sigmund Freud’s ideas are the basis for psychoanalytic theory today. Intravenous injections of morphine began.

20th century

Gestalt theory and behaviourism, or stimulus-response, began to merge in the techniques of cognitive behavioural therapy, which is popular today. Chemicals were used to induce deep sleep treatment. Insulin coma therapy saw patients given insulin to induce a coma and convulsions. Camphor injections were also used to induce fits. Electroconvulsive therapy (above) was introduced as a treatment for schizophrenia and soon became widespread. Various antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s. Psychosurgery was used with considerable enthusiasm in the middle of the century.


Creativity and Insanity

Here is some interesting information I found on the link between creativity and insanity.

A study at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee has found that people known as “schizotypes” may be able to function normally and still have enhanced creativity due to their schizophrenic tendencies. It seems that their greater creativity comes from using more of the right side of the brain than most of us use. They seem to be able to walk that proverbial fine line between insanity and genius.

Schizotypes are generally considered somewhere between normal and insane. They often have their own unique eccentricities, but not the more extreme symptoms of schizophrenics, such as hallucinations and paranoia. They may think in unusual ways, dress differently, and have odd routines.

The evidence of a link between creativity and mental illness has mostly been anecdotal in the past, although there have been some studies showing correlation. The Vanderbilt study, on the other hand, used brain-imaging technology to look at the creative process. They started with a definition of creativity as the ability to create something new from existing things and ideas, and did two experiments to look at and compare what was going on in the brains of schizotypes, schizophrenics and normal control subjects.

For example, subjects were asked to think of uses for a needle and thread. Both the normal subjects and the schizophrenic ones had fairly mundane ideas, such as sewing. On the other hand, one schizotype suggested that a poor person could use the thread to a ring for his fiancee, or use the needle to write “I love you” in sand.

There was a marked tendency for the schizotypes to have more creative ideas. This was also true in the second experiment, when the groups were again asked to think of creative ways to use household objects. This time, however, all subjects had their brains monitored. researchers used a brain-imaging technology called near-infrared optical spectroscopy.

The brain scans showed that all subjects used both sides of the brain when coming up with creative ideas. But the activity was much higher in the brain’s right hemisphere in the schizotypes. Whether they have greater access to that hemisphere or more efficient communication between the two sides isn’t clear. What is clear, is that they are thinking differently than the general population.

Note: This study on the link between insanity and creativity was reported in 2005 on, and was detailed in the journal Schizophrenia Research.

All too often, creativity goes hand in hand with mental illness. Now we’re starting to understand why. Roger Dobson reports.

By Roger Dobson / Source: The Independent

At first glance, Einstein, Salvador Dali, Tony Hancock, and Beach Boy Brian Wilson would seem to have little in common. Their areas of physics, modern art, comedy, and rock music are light years apart.

So what, if anything, could possibly link minds that gave the world the theory of relativity, great surreal art, iconic comedy, and songs about surfing?

According to new research, psychosis could be the answer. Creative minds in all kinds of areas, from science to poetry, and mathematics to humour, may have traits associated with psychosis. Such traits may allow the unusual and sometimes bizarre thought processes associated with mental illness to fuel creativity.

The theory is based on the idea that there is no clear dividing line between the healthy and the mentally ill. Rather, there is a continuum, with some people having psychotic traits without having the debilitating symptoms.

Mental illnesses have been around for thousands of years. Evolutionary theory suggests that in order for them to be still here, there must be some kind of survival advantage to them. If they were wholly bad, it’s argued, natural selection would have seen them off long ago. In some cases the advantage is clear.

Anxiety, for example, can be a mental illness with severe symptoms and consequences, but it is also a trait that at a non-clinical level has survival advantages. In healthy proportions, it keeps us alert and on our toes when threats are sensed

It’s now increasingly being argued that there are survival advantages to others forms of illness, too, because of the links between the traits associated with them and creativity.

“It can be difficult for people to reconcile mental illness with the idea that traits may not be disabling. While people accept that there are health benefits to anxiety, they are more wary of schizophrenia and manic depression,” says Professor Gordon Claridge, emeritus professor of abnormal psychology at Oxford University, who has edited a special edition of the journal Personality and Individual Differences, looking at the links between mental illness and creativity. “There is now a feeling that these traits have survived because they have some adaptive value. To be mildly manic depressive or mildly schizophrenic brings a flexibility of thought, an openness, and risk-taking behaviour, which does have some adaptive value in creativity. The price paid for having those traits is that some will have mental illness.”

Research is providing support for the idea that creative people are more likely to have traits associated with mental illness. One study found that the incidence of mood disorders, suicide and institutionalisation to be 20 times higher among major British and Irish poets in the 200 years up to 1800.

Other studies have shown that psychiatric patients perform better in tests of abstract thinking. Another study, based on 291 eminent and creative men in different fields, found that 69 per cent had a mental disorder of some kind. Scientists were the least affected, while artists and writers had increased diagnoses of psychosis.

“Most theorists agree that it is not the full-blown illness itself, but the milder forms of psychosis that are at the root of the association between creativity and madness,” says Emilie Glazer, experimental psychologist and author of one of the Oxford journal papers. “The underlying traits linked with mild psychopathology enhance creative ability. In severe form, they are debilitating.”

Research is also showing that traits associated with different mental illnesses have different effects on creativity. The creativity needed to develop the theory of relativity, is, for example, very different from that required for producing surreal paintings, or poetry.

Research is now homing in on whether the psychosis that is linked to different types of creativity comes through schizophrenia and schizotypy traits, through manic-depressive or cyclothymic traits, or traits associated with the autism and Asperger’s disorders.

A study at the University of Newcastle found significant differences between artistically creative people and mathematicians. While the artists showed schizotypy traits, mathematicians did not, and that fits in with the idea that mathematics and engineering, which require attention to detail, are closer to the autistic traits than to psychosis.

“Affective disorder perpetuates creativity limited to the normal,” says Glazer, “while the schizoid person is predisposed to a sense of detachment from the world, free from social boundaries and able to consider alternative frameworks, producing creativity within the revolutionary sphere. Newton and Einstein’s schizotypal orientation, for instance, enabled their revolutionary stamp in the sciences.”

The stereotypical images of mad scientists working alone and preferring foaming beakers to friends, abound in literature, and reflect a popular perception of the aloof, detached and obsessive genius. But the idea goes back even further. 2000 years ago in Rome, the philosopher Seneca was obviously already on the case when he wrote: “There is no great genius without a tincture of madness.”

It’s no joke: Comedians and depression

Heard the one about the man who went to the doctor to get help for his depression? He’s told to go and see a show with a well known comedian who would make him laugh and lift his spirits. “But that’s me,” says the patient. “I’m the comedian.”

The joke, related by Rod Martin, author of ‘The Psychology of Humor – An Integrative Approach’, is apparently something of a favourite among comedians, who are known to be prone to depression, from the late Tony Hancock and Spike Milligan, to Stephen Fry and Paul Merton.

One theory is that humour is developed in response to depression, and that it works as a coping mechanism. One study, reported by Martin, looked at 55 male and 14 female comedians, all famous and successful. It found that comedians tended to be superior in intelligence, angry, suspicious, and depressed.

In addition, their early lives were characterised by suffering, isolation, and feelings of deprivation, and, he says, they used humour as a defence against anxiety, converting their feel ings of suppressed rage from physical to verbal aggression. “The comedic skills required for a successful career may well be developed as a means of compensating for earlier psychological losses and difficulties,” says Martin. A second study did not find higher levels, although comedians had significantly greater preoccupation with themes of good and evil, unworthiness, self-deprecation, and duty and responsibility.

“A significant proportion of comedians do seem to suffer more with depression,” says Professor Gordon Claridge, emeritus professor of abnormal psychology at Oxford University. “Comedy seems to act as a way of dealing with depression. I think there is an emotionality and cognitive style that goes along with these depressive disorders which seems to feed creativity.”

Salvador Dali was not just a great artist. He also met the criteria for several psychosis diagnoses, a mixture of schizophrenic and depressive. He may also have been paranoid, as well having antisocial, histrionic, and narcissistic disorders. “Dalí and his contribution to the history of art highlights that abnormality is not necessarily disagreeable – or to be so readily dismissed as a sign of neurological disease. For without his instability, Dalí may not have created the great art that he did,” says Caroline Murphy of Oxford.

a collection of autobiographical essays that describes the role that manic depression plays in his creativity

Catching you up (13)

by JustEliza on 23 April 2010

“There’s new writing on my blackboard. “Do not self-censor.”

I don’t mean say and do everything that comes to mind. But everything deserves due consideration. When I am used to living so privately, so carefully, so avoidantly… I need to stretch. I need to ask myself: “What is really stopping me?”

“What am I trying to hide?”

The memories, those little wisps, they are starting to interject themselves into my days again. Breathless, disjointed pauses. Just one unified moment of taste touch smell sound… sight. One hour, researching NHS guidelines. One millisecond, Lost friendship. Remember. And it lingers, that one millisecond of nothing, while the rest of the hour fades away.

They are coming, more and more frequent. The answer is two months. Two months of stirring up dust. Two months new. And then the brain starts flipping channels.

Tonight I walked in place.

I will forget. I will.”

“If I can’t feel, if I can’t move, if I can’t think, and I can’t care, then what conceivable point is there in living?”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)
“There is a particular kind of pain, elation, loneliness, and terror involved in this kind of madness. When you’re high it’s tremendous. The ideas and feelings are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them until you find better and brighter ones. Shyness goes, the right words and gestures are suddenly there, the power to captivate others a felt certainty. There are interests found in uninteresting people. Sensuality is pervasive and the desire to seduce and be seduced irresistible. Feelings of ease, intensity, power, well-being, financial omnipotence, and euphoria pervade one’s marrow. But, somewhere, this changes. The fast ideas are far too fast, and there are far too many; overwhelming confusion replaces clarity. Memory goes. Humor and absorption on friends’ faces are replaced by fear and concern. Everything previously moving with the grain is now against– you are irritable, angry, frightened, uncontrollable, and enmeshed totally in the blackest caves of the mind. You never knew those caves were there. It will never end, for madness carves its own reality.”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“Mother, who has an absolute belief that it is not the cards that one is dealt in life, it is how one plays them, is, by far, the highest card I was dealt.”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“I compare myself with my former self, not with others. Not only that, I tend to compare my current self with the best I have been, which is when I have been midly manic. When I am my present “normal” self, I am far removed from when I have been my liveliest, most productive, most intense, most outgoing and effervescent. In sort, for myself, I am a hard act to follow.”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“Others imply that they know what it is like to be depressed because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or broken up with someone. But these experiences carry with them feelings. Depression, instead, is flat, hollow, and unendurable. It is also tiresome. People cannot abide being around you when you are depressed. They might think that they ought to, and they might even try, but you know and they know that you are tedious beyond belief: you are irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and you’re “not at all like yourself but will be soon,” but you know you won’t.”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“We all build internal sea walls to keep at bay the sadnesses of life and the often overwhelming forces within our minds. In whatever way we do this–through love, work, family, faith, friends, denial, alcohol, drugs, or medication, we build these walls, stone by stone, over a lifetime. ”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“the intensity, glory, and absolute assuredness if my mind’s flight made it very difficult for me to believe once i was better, that the illness was one i should willingly give up….moods are such an essential part of the substance of life, of one’s notion of oneself, that even psychotic extremes in mood and behavior somehow can be seen as temporary, even understandable reactions to what life has dealt….even though the depressions that inevitably followed nearly cost me my life.”
— Kay Redfield Jamison

“Love, like life, is much stranger and far more complicated than one is brought up to believe.”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“Somehow, like so many people who get depressed, we felt our depressions were more complicated and existentially based than they actually were.”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“But money spent while manic doesn’t fit into the Internal Revenue Service concept of medical expense or business loss. So after mania, when most depressed, you’re given excellent reason to be even more so.”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“No amount of love can cure madness or unblacken one’s dark moods. Love can help, it can make the pain more tolerable, but, always, one is beholden to medication that may or may not always work and may or may not be bearable”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“Love has, at its best, made the inherent sadness of life bearable, and its beauty manifest.”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“Chaos and intensity are no substitute for lasting love, nor are they necessarily an improvement on real life.”

— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“I look back over my shoulder and feel the presence of an intense young girl and then a volatile and disturbed young woman, both with high dreams and restless, romantic aspirations”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“Manic-depression distorts moods and thoughts, incites dreadful behaviors, destroys the basis of rational thought, and too often erodes the desire and will to live. It is an illness that is biological in its origins, yet one that feels psychological in the experience of it, an illness that is unique in conferring advantage and pleasure, yet one that brings in its wake almost unendurable suffering and, not infrequently, suicide.”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“No pill can help me deal with the problem of not wanting to take pills; likewise, no amount of psychotherapy alone can prevent my manias and depressions. I need both. It is an odd thing, owing life to pills, one’s own quirks and tenacities, and this unique, strange, and ultimately profound relationship called psychotherapy”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“I was bitterly resentful, but somehow greatly relieved. And I respected him enormously for his clarity of thought, his obvious caring, and his unwillingness to equivocate in delivering bad news.”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“Each way to suicide is its own: intensely private, unknowable, and terrible. Suicide will have seemed to its perpetrator the last and best of bad possibilities, and any attempt by the living to chart this final terrain of life can be only a sketch, maddeningly incomplete ”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide)

“It is tempting when looking at the life of anyone who has committed suicide to read into the decision to die a vastly complex web of reasons; and, of course, such complexity is warranted. No one illness or event causes suicide; and certainly no one knows all, or perhaps even most, of the motivations behind the killing of the self. But psychopathology is almost always there, and its deadliness is fierce. Love, success, and friendship are not always enough to counter the pain and destructiveness of severe mental illness ”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide)

“Suicide is not a blot on anyone’s name; it is a tragedy ”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide)

“Looking at suicide—the sheer numbers, the pain leading up to it, and the suffering left behind—is harrowing. For every moment of exuberance in the science, or in the success of governments, there is a matching and terrible reality of the deaths themselves: the young deaths, the violent deaths, the unnecessary deaths ”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide)

“Love, like life, is much stranger and far more complicated than one is brought up to believe”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“Normal people are not always boring. On the contrary. Volatility and passion, although often more romantic and enticing, are not intrinsically preferable to a steadiness of experience and feeling about another person (nor are they incompatible). These are beliefs, of course, that one has intuitively about friendships and family; they become less obvious when caught up in a romantic life that mirrors, magnifies, and perpetuates one’s own mercurial emotional life and temperament. It has been with my pleasure, and not-inconsiderable pain, that I have learned about the possibilities of love – its steadiness and its growth – from my husband, the man with whom I had lived for almost a decade. ”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“As best I could make out, having never heard the term until I arrived in California, being a WASP meant being mossbacked, lockjawed, rigid, humorless, cold, charmless, insipid, less than penetratingly bright, but otherwise—and inexplicably—to be envied.”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“The assumption that rigidly rejecting words and phrases that have existed for centuries will have much impact on public attitudes is rather dubious.”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)

“The awareness of the damage done by severe mental illness—to the individual himself and to others—and fears that it may return again play a decisive role in many suicides ”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide)

“When people are suicidal, their thinking is paralyzed, their options appear spare or nonexistent, their mood is despairing, and hopelessness permeates their entire mental domain. The future cannot be separated from the present, and the present is painful beyond solace. ‘This is my last experiment,’ wrote a young chemist in his suicide note. ‘If there is any eternal torment worse than mine I’ll have to be shown.”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide)

“Conditions of thought, memory, and desire, persuaded by impulse and irrationality, are influenced as well by personal aesthetics and private meanings.”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide)

“We all move uneasily within our restraints.”
— Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness)