Friday, August 12, 2005

Creativity and Mental Illness

This is excerpted from a paper I wrote while attending graduate school in Chico, CA. I thought it might be helpful to the artist out there who wants to know more about the connection between depression (and other mental illnesses) and creativity. If the findings are correct, and the "mentally ill" have so much to offer, then what does this say about the treatment of this segment of society?

Consciousness, introspection, self-awareness, and abstract thinking have no basis in scientific measurement (Swerdlow, 1995). Science, however, seems to be heading in this direction. Humans have this need for explanation, and as such, we have discovered that the planum temporale in the left hemisphere, a part of the brain associated with auditory processing, is larger in musicians than in non-musicians, and is larger still in musicians with perfect pitch. Other research indicates that van Gogh may have suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, which triggered electrical hyperactivity of the brain (Swerdlow, 1995).

There are more recent cases which point to physiology as it effects the creative process. By the 1950’s, Howard Hughes had established himself as a filmmaker, inventor, designer, engineer, industrialist and businessman. By the 1970’s, he was said to be one of the most eccentric people in America, living in isolation, giving out strict orders to his staff on how to maintain cleanliness, once test landing a plane some five thousand times when only twenty or so was necessary, and generally living out a life of extraordinarily bizarre behaviors. Yet, no one questioned this, intervened or even insisted that he get help!! Why? Perhaps, they thought this was common for a creative genius, man of his caliber, or normal for the rich and famous to act peculiar. What we know now is that Howard Hughes was suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder (Osborne, 1998). PET scans reveal that the brain of someone suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder is overactive, particularly the section known as the caudate nucleus. The entire frontal cortex of a person with this condition literally lights up when compared to a person without the condition. The mental activity that made Hughes a great genius, was also slowly killing him.

What I have learned in my study of this disorder is that what makes some people crazy, can also make them creative, or great if they choose. Winston Churchill and Martin Luther, both great leaders in their time, suffered the effects of mental illness. Churchill had terrible depression and Martin Luther, though it wasn’t called this at the time, had obsessive compulsive disorder. Martin Luther was said to be scrupulous, literally asking for forgiveness more than twenty times a day for acts committed that day (Jamision, 1995). There is an endless list of people that I have read or heard about that suffered from mental illness and were also creative. Is there a connection?

It would be hard to imagine that there is not. The brain is acting in such a way as to stimulate thought, insight, imagination, excitement and emotion. What we do not manifest into some creative outlet is likely to take its toll in another equally profound way. A few years ago, I had a conversation with a doctor concerning his son and his son’s outrageous, counter productive behavior in my classroom. When we discussed the possible reasons, his answer was that his son acted this way, not because he meant any harm or disrespect, but because “his brain required it.” Acting out, creating, being weird, whatever we wish to call it is really the brain’s way of achieving the balance it needs.

Edward O. Wilson, in Consilience, discusses this very notion on the section involving dreaming. He reports that in a dream state, the person is really insane. What he means is that these images, thoughts, impulses, if occurring during a cognizant, awake state would classify any of us as insane. What is going on during one of these states is interesting. The amines that the brain normally produces – such as norepinephrine and serotonin run low. Wilson suggests that the brain, in a dream state, is compensating for low levels of these chemicals by producing fantastic images. Take this a step further and one can see why artists and creative people tend to be so depressed. They too are compensating. They want so badly to get out of this state and the only option is a creation of their own doing, something so amazing that it literally alters their brain chemistry! It would naturally follow that the deeper one feels depression the more creative they are apt to be. The "normal" nine-to-five crowd, to some, is uninspiring and unimaginative. Well, they don’t need to be. Their brains do not require it.

Julia Cameron (1992), in the Artist’s way, confirms this, though in a less scientific way. She says, that our brightest ideas are often “proceeded by a gestation period that is inferior, murky, and completely necessary.” People seeking to reach that perfect state of creativity toy with these brain levels, trying to find the perfect amount of sadness or joy or whatever emotion will propel their project to great heights of pure creativity. When such levels are insufficient, they turn to exercise, thrill seeking, or worse, coffee, tobacco, alcohol and worse yet, drugs. It is really a never ending battle for the perfect state of being, and the perfect state of creative contribution.

Spalding Gray (1985) writes about this in his cult classic, Swimming to Cambodia. As an actor in the movie The Killing Fields, he swore not to leave Thailand until he had achieved what he called the “perfect moment.” To paraphrase, the perfect moment was to him, that moment when everything came together, producing an amazing experience (Gray, 1985). This was the experience that one would remember most, the experience that would define the journey, the one to tell family and friends about. For Michael Jordan, it was important to leave basketball at the peak of his game, probably in a moment not too different from what Gray was writing about. Jordan, was in effect, the writer of the play on his life. As director, why not make it dramatic, thrilling, emotional, or even perfect?

Does this have implications for education? Without a doubt it does. Here we are, teachers directing students, literally taking away their control, their ability to form personal meaning and imposing, almost forcing content down their throats. Yet, we somehow expect them to learn from this?! Eric Jensen’s (1998) research in Teaching with the Brain in Mind would probably caution against this, noting that “emotion helps reason to focus the mind and set priorities. Many researchers now believe that emotion and reason are not opposites. For example, our logical side says, ‘set a goal.’ But only our emotions get us passionate enough even to care enough to act on that goal.” (Daniel Goleman, 1995) argues that emotions are equally important to basic logic when making a decision. Perhaps the answer to this is to allow the students more control in decision making, in personal choice making, not just at home but at school.
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