Monday, 14 February 2011

mad, bad, etc

In the creativity group the other day we finally wandered into the territory of the relationship between creativity and various forms of 'mental instability'. A day or so later, one of the group found this article on the BBC website: Poetry, the creative process, and mental illness.

There are so many cultural myths and fantasies around this idea, which are closely tied up with myths and fantasies about 'genius' and 'talent'. Artists (or poets, or writers), we all seem to agree, are at least a little bit mad (look at Van Gogh...). It's a creativity bodyswerve, too - well, I'm not mad or dysfunctional, so, of course, you can't expect any serious creativity out of me.

The first question that this raises is what is meant by mental illness. I'm not trying to be tricky academic here - it's a serious question. And what is 'mental' about mental illness? It's always seemed strange to me that issues of feeling - of pain, suffering, joy, anxiety etc - are classed as 'mental'. If 'mental' is one half of the mind/body split (strong in our culture, even if critiqued and expanded), why are emotions not classed as 'body'? It's in your body that you feel anxiety, or fear - in your stomach, in the tightening of your chest, suddenly unable to catch your breath.

The next question is about the boundary, the line. At what point does 'normal' anxiety tip over and become pathological, a psychological problem? Everyone feels anxiety, which, like other emotions, is communication - in the case of anxiety, about an impending threat, real or imagined. Feeling emotions is health.

The third question is about seeing mental illness as a problem that generates itself within the individual. If a 'normal' person was put in a damp flat, surrounded by rats and mould, pilfering gangs and noisy neighbours, and told that they had £60 a week to live on with their three children, how long would they retain their equanimity? Someone with a certain type of personality might be highly anxious as chairman of the board, but the confident leader of a cause they feel passionate about.

These are just the first problems that come to mind (I once met someone who was doing a PhD on the demarcations of mental illness. After some years, they gave up; the beginnings  and ends seemed impossible to find...). If there are all these questions, how can we begin to discuss how such an idea might relate to creativity? The BBC article makes the point that creativity requires pushing beyond accepted limits and norms, and suggests that people who already do this might find it easier to be creative. But, as the article points out, such pushing beyond norms, if that's your tendency, may well mean that you are already outside of 'normal' societal expectations. Is it surprising that people who take more conventional paths - who work hard at school, do well, get successful careers, look after families etc - might then struggle a little to push outside the limits that they have been conditioned to accept?

An alternative idea to the youhavetobemadtobecreative one, might be Aron's idea of what she calls the Highly Sensitive Person (subtitle, 'how to survive and thrive when the world overwhelms you'). An academic psychologist, Aron's research suggests to her that some people are just naturally 'HSP's - people who quickly become overstimulated, who are often accused of being 'over-sensitive', and who struggle with things that the rest of the world seems to have no trouble with. It's an interesting read, and seems to me to shed a completely different light on creativity and sensitivity.


  1. It must be in the wind somehow - I've also been thinking about this issue a lot recently too. A couple of the students I work with are currently taking very different approaches to some of these issues - trauma in particular. One, like "The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was" is tentatively (thankfully) seeking a deep experience: this student has even been contemplating following old people to see if they die (yes very morbid and kind of worrying but you'd have to know the student to fully gauge their conflicted thoughts and sensitivity). The other student is almost the opposite: trying desperately to put their life back together after a genuinely traumatic experience which has devastated their ability to function as a normal human being, let alone a student or artist.
    Trauma, mental illness, neurosis - "normal" artists (and students of art) are constantly made to feel as though they'll never be "real" artists unless they've suffered in the most profound ways. It just goes to show how, in many ways, artists are created by society rather than creating within it.

  2. Mmmm, interesting. Especially the idea - which is kind of the reverse of my comment on why 'normal' people don't have confidence in their creative powers - that people who are trying to become artists almost feel stigmatised if they aren't suffering/in trouble.

    Similarly, in the same way that many 'mental health' problems could be seen as a sane response to the environment, I like your point that artists are produced in certain ways by those environments. Or, I might say, that they emerge in ways which are strongly influenced by the power of those social constraints.

    Seeing an interest in death as morbid is also a strong cultural idea, isn't it? Whereas if you were brought up in some types of Buddhist culture, you might be not only used to seeing death all around you, but even positively encouraged to consider its reality. From a young age.

    Do you think that art, or creativity, can help people to put their lives back together after deep trauma? I don't really mean art therapy here (which I'm a bit wary of, in the sense of setting out to manipulate people's creativity as a form of treatment). I suppose I'm thinking of whether finding some deep spring within oneself, which is generative, capable of endlessly making new things appear, might help a person to find a kind of personal solid ground again?



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