Creativity and Depression

Have you ever wondered why depression is commonly associated with creative genius? According to Paul Wolf, a clinical pathologist at the University of California. Einstein, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Ravel, Goya, Michelangelo and Warhol all suffered from diseases that are now thought to have contributed to their greatness. Melancholy, in particular, seems to be common amongst great sculptors, painters, writers and composers and Asperger’s syndrome has been linked with extreme perseverance, perfectionism and a disregard for the opinions of one’s peers — exactly the behaviour one needs to create masterpieces that defy prevailing logic or make no immediate or logical sense to the outside world.

The idea of artistic genius being related to madness goes back centuries but recent discoveries in neuroscience are beginning to explain why this might be the case. Ravel wasn’t mad in today’s terms but he was almost certainly suffering from Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) when he composed ‘Bolero’ at the age of 53. FTD is a disease whereby the frontal lobe of the brain, and possibly the temporal lobe of the brain, shrinks. The brain is made up of various areas and networks, which control or inhibit other areas, so when one area or circuit is damaged other areas or circuits can come to the fore. Indeed, when certain circuits are injured or damaged beyond repair the result can be a re-wiring of the brain whereby other brain functions become stronger. A parallel here, perhaps, is blindness. If sight is removed other senses such as smell or hearing can become stronger, so perhaps release of artistic talent is in some way dependent in some people on the loss of one or more of the senses, which is in turn related in some way to the release of inhibitions. I have no experience of this but from a purely personal standpoint I do seem to be able to think better when I remove certain stimuli and it is perhaps no accident that some people close their eyes when they are thinking because this taps into certain parts of their brains.

In Ravel’s case brain disease meant that he had difficulty writing musical scores and there are examples of other artists that either lose the urge or the skill to paint or to compose when the right side of the posterior brain is damaged. Conversely, there are examples where severe brain damage is a catalyst for creativity. One such case involved a scientist called Dr Anne Adams who suffered from a condition identical to that of Ravel. In her late middle age Dr Adams gave up science and began painting. And at the age of 53 she started to paint the Bolero.

Now I’m obviously not saying that organisations should go in search of employees with bi-polar disorder, autism or dyslexia but I am saying that as societies we should be less negative about some of these conditions because as well as pain they can bring forth great things. The general point here is that individuals and organisations put too much emphasis on finding the right sort of person and discount anyone that does not fit their mental model of what an ideal

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One Response to Creativity and Depression

  1. I have been saying for years that Creativity is Dangerous. This article clearly supports my position and makes a strong case for Bosses everywhere to take extreme measures to squish it out of the workplace.

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