Genius Thinking (Part 2) : Romanticising Madness

All significant leaps are made through a mixture of talent and technique. These two components are not some mysterious and unexplainable part of the creative process, but the result of hard work coupled with an ability to see things from different perspectives. I’ve outlined some thoughts on creative thinking in an earlier post, but here I would like to concentrate on the romantic idea of artistic inspiration. In particular, the romanticised belief we seem to hold that madness in some way heightens creative genius. We can see this in popular portrayals of the ‘mad scientist’ figure or from popular perceptions of artists such as Van Gogh.

However, this belittles the dogged persistence and discipline that artists and scientists undertake. Sure, intuition plays a role in creative expression, but intuition is often followed by endurance. These words ‘persistence’, ‘doggedness’, ‘endurance’ are anything but romantic and despite the seemingly carefree attitude that many creative individuals affect, most work hard and persist through a process of trial and error where less driven individuals would not. Having ideas, then, takes a great deal of discipline, a word that is not synonymous with those in the throes of emotional distress.

Nevertheless, the image of emotional distress tends to be more commonly placed on artists, musicians, writers and others in this vein. Artists are more likely to ruminate, a thinking style that is commonly linked with depression and many struggle against difficult conditions. Added to this is the pressure of feeling the need to live up to earlier success. Some may even play to up to these stereotypes, allowing others to mistake eccentricity for ‘madness’. Whatever the case, leading an unconventional or more ‘creative’ lifestyle does not automatically mean that there is a lack of emotional stability. Recent studies have found the genetic overlap between creativity and mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to be weak.

According to a new study in Nature Neuroscience, although there is evidence for a shared biology linking psychosis and creativity, the correlation is not particularly strong. By looking at variants in over 1,000 people who work in creative occupations in Iceland, the analysis showed that those who belong to artistic communities were more likely to carry variants that increased a person’s risk of developing mental illness than people in other occupations. However, these results can be misleading and using the results as a predictive tool is not only a weak measure but also harmful.

One criticism of the report suggests that this limited correlation stems from our inability to provide a good definition of creativity. Moreover, defining creativity by occupation is misleading. Individuals who work in jobs outside of the creative industries may not earn a living through painting or dancing, but they may still partake in creative activity outside of work and, indeed, define themselves as being creative.

But the perpetuation of this stereotype is not only down to defining a robust measure for creativity. In some sense, it has to be down to those in the scientific and creative communities to share their working processes with others. In doing so, they demystify the idea of the ‘mad genius’ and promote the qualities needed for creative thinking – making sense of the world in a way relevant to all occupations in all walks of life.




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