Let’s Gogh…Creative Genius and Mental Health

Guys, I did some research.

I’ve been utterly fascinated with this idea for some time, this connection between mental health disorders and the creative mind. Even Aristoteles said, “there is no genius without having a touch of madness”.¬†Working and completing coursework in the field of mental health has led me down this road of thought many, many times, so I thought it was about time to answer my own damn question. And there’s a shit ton of evidence backing it up.

I started looking into it more the other day after I had this creative surge, sat down, sketched for literally 5 hours straight (to the point where my eyes were getting kinda jacked up) then wrote a bunch.

The following morning I was in good spirits but was very restless. I had anxiety minus the mental stuff, if that makes any sense. All physical and couldn’t sit still. Anyways, I got to thinking. Was my creative surge linked to these symptoms? Or just a happy coincidence? (And for the record, I’m not considering myself a creative genius by any means).

So I got to looking it up. Here’s a few shining examples of creative minds with mental health disorders (some are recently diagnosed based on what we now know):

  • Michelangelo: OCD (some argue autism)
  • Kurt Cobain: ADD, bi-polar
  • Pablo Picasso- depression
  • Virginia Woolf: depression
  • Isaac Newton: bi-polar disorder
  • Walt Disney: dyslexia
  • Beethoven: bi-polar disorder
  • Steve Jobs: OCPD
  • Edgar Allan Poe: alcoholism, depression
  • Abraham Lincoln: depression and anxiety attacks
  • Vivian Leigh: depression and mania
  • Vincent van Gogh: bi-polar disorder
  • JK Rowling: depression
  • Winston Churchill: bi-polar disorder, dyslexia
  • Albert Einstein: dyslexia


And the list goes on. Surprisingly, many creative geniuses had dyslexia and or bi-polar disorder. Is there some chemical, some process, linking these disorders and their tortured genius?

A study from 2010 found similarities between the brains in healthy, highly creative people and those with schizophrenia. The same authors discussed an association with dopamine (the pleasure and reward neurotransmitter) and creativity. Dopamine is brought up a lot in regards to mental health. Seems it can be a real bitch, but the exact connection is still a mystery. It’s a good start, however.

Another study looked at the genes of 86,000 people in Iceland and found a 17% increase in mental health disorders among artists (dancers, painters etc.), particularly schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder.

A somewhat different take came from the 1960’s, when scientists believed the link was openness. Writers, after testing them, scored high in this area. They feel that it’s possible creative people “engage with the full spectrum of life, both the dark and the light”.

And lastly, a study composed of more than one million people was conducted through the Karolinska Institute. In this study they found a number of correlations between creative occupations and mental health.

Then there is the question of defining genius, or defining creativity. Each study had its scale and parameters to go by, but some may disagree with that interpretation. The manual that formalizes diagnosis (currently the DSM V) changes every edition (about every 10 ish years) and the way we define mental health can vary (for fuck sake homosexuality used to be in there…).

The research is out there linking disorders of the mind and creativity, but the exact mechanism seems somewhat unknown. And of course, you can have one without the other, so what biological instrument is at work? It definitely raises some questions…Do you think medication, which can possibly help disorders, could hamper creativity? Is it a chemical association or is the creativity perhaps a way of coping with the illness?

Photo Credit: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93184407