The Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness

Creativity, Addiction and Mental Illness seem to go hand in hand, but why? Today we address theories and research on why so many gifted creatives also struggle with addictions.

The association between mental illness (addictions, bipolar, eating disorder(s), borderline personality disorder, depression, histrionic, schizophrenia etc…) and creativity first appeared in literature in the 1970s, but the idea of a link between madness and genius is much older. Dating back at least to the Ancient Greeks who believed that creativity came from the gods, and in particular the Muses, the goddesses of arts and sciences, and the
nine daughters of Zeus, the king of the gods. The idea of a complete work of art emerging without conscious thought or effort was reinforced by the views of the Romantic era.

It has been proposed that there is a particular link between creativity and mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder, whereas major depressive disorder appears to be significantly more common among playwrights, novelists, biographers, and artists. Individuals with Bipolar Disorder II experience milder periods of hypomania during which the flight of ideas, faster thought processes and ability to take in more information can be converted to art, writing, poetry or design.

A research team at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm studied 13 mentally healthy, highly creative men and women. As noted in the published paper they found that divergent thinking, or the ability to “think outside the box,” involves the brain’s dopamine communication system. The Swedish research team used PET scanning to determine the abundance of a particular dopamine receptor, or sensor, in the creative individuals’ thalamus and striatum, areas that process and sort information before it reaches conscious thought, and that are known to be involved in schizophrenia. The team found that people who had lower levels of dopamine receptor activity in the thalamus also had higher scores on tests of divergent thinking, for instance, finding many solutions to a problem.

Previous work has shown that people with schizophrenia also have lower dopamine receptor activity in the thalamus and the scientists suggest in their paper that this striking similarity demonstrates a “crucial” link between creativity and psychopathology. “Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box” says author Fredrik Ullén, a cognitive scientist at Karolinska.