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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Article on Creativity/Genius and Mental Illness

   
Author Topic: Article on Creativity/Genius and Mental Illness
Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Thought this might be interesting, not only for self-examination as writers, but for characterization help:

http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/06/secrets-of-the-creative-brain/372299/

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Denevius
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I'm always skeptical of the term, genius. And I really dislike Kurt Vonnegut's writing, so there's that. I did appreciate the quote of John Nash at the end, though:

quote:
“Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”
I think there's a bit too much romanticizing mental illness and genius for my taste, and it gives people the motivation to engage in risky or self-destructive behavior because they believe that's what a genius would do.

But when it comes strictly to the conversation of art and genius, I prefer this quote by Pablo de Sarasate:

quote:
"For thirty-seven years I have practiced fourteen hours a day, and now they call me a genius."
Or the other about genius being 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. I'm not sure how mental illness and perspiration go hand and hand, though.
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MattLeo
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Hmm. I have a contrary view of creativity. I think many more people have the capacity for creativity than display it. What's missing is the need.

Let's imagine you are highly intelligent. Not hard to imagine, because you are! A typical highly intelligent person should have his life in order. He gravitates to a job where his intelligence commands a salary: engineer, mechanic, accountant, etc. But suppose there's something about you that means you don't fit in at those kinds of jobs. Maybe you can't work with other people; or you can't be counted on to show up at work. Maybe you go on jags where you're super-productive, then go for months without accomplishing anything at all.

Then you, my friend, have the ingredients for the best known recipe for making a creative genius: high intelligence plus an inability to make your living in any of the obvious, ordinary ways.

Necessity is the mother of invention, so without need there is no creativity. But the need doesn't have to come from a personal struggle with mental illness. I once had a job where I developed a reputation as a kind of creative miracle worker. In my prior jobs I was known as intelligent, conscientious and competent, but not particularly creative. What was different about this job was my boss, who would promise people anything from finishing the project on 20% of the budget I projected, to things that nobody had even figured out how to do yet. What made it worse was I had a staff of eight engineers working for me. Every month we'd have a planning meeting where I'd announce the latest insanity. The atmosphere in those meetings was like we were marshaling for a reenactment of the Charge of the Light Brigade, but I'd always say the same thing: just because we don't know how to do this doesn't mean we can't; let's apply ourselves and see what happens. Left unsaid but on everyone's minds was that if we failed someone sitting at that table would have to be laid off.

But that's still creativity in response to insanity, just in that case not my own. And while that has its good points I don't recommend it. I think you can consciously create other needs; ones that aren't so negative. On every project you should set yourself a "stretch" goal -- to accomplish something you don't know how to do yet. It doesn't have to be insanely difficult, it just has to be a little outside your comfort zone. Will that make you a genius? Not necessarily; but if you have it in you to be a genius, it might.

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extrinsic
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Nancy Andreasen steps closer to unraveling the connection between creativity and non-normative mental processes than many in the field. I won't connect mental illness to creative giftedness the way she and others attempt. They are not causally related, though they might be co-presentations of an underlaying causation.

Though creativity and non-normative mental processes come together statistically, the connection is akin to connecting chronic degenerative spine conditions to acute traumas. An acute trauma may trigger neurological symptoms in an asymtopmatic presentation but they are not co-causal. The degenerative spine is caused by aging; the trauma's presentation effects may otherwise resolve in time--the degenerative spine might be treatable though a losing battle. They may be proximal effects but not immediately causal. This is a cum hoc; ergo, propter hoc fallacy. With this; therefore, because of this.

The connection Andreasen strains between creativity and schizophrenia doesn't exist. Schizoprenia is a symptom, not a cause, of a mental condition, nor a cause of creativity, though they may be co-effects of an underlaying cause. Likewise, bipolar condition is a symptom effect, not a cause. Andreasen touches on a presentation creatively gifted persons experience and present; that is, divergent thought and its related creative free association activities in the brain. She fails to see the causal connections thereof.

Andreasen is more ahead enlightenment-wise than her peers understanding the creativity connection to non-normative mental processes, a great deal ahead of Freud, who initiated psychoanalysis by studying literature. She's still caught in the morass of preconceived notions and beliefs common to the mental health field. Symptoms are not diseases. They are presentations. Schizophrenia, bipolar, obsessive complusion, among others, alcoholism, substance abuse, are symptom presentations, not diseases.

Andreasen obviously has similar experiences of non-normative mental processes, similar to her study subjects. She's creatively gifted, able to express her thoughts dynamically, persuasively, and a polymath, for examples. Physician, heal thyself. Psychiatrists, psychologists, clinicians, counselors, researchers, anyone in the mental health field seeks self-treatment through treating or helping others. They seek meaning making for their life crises and crises causes through their patients, clients, consumers, study subjects. Best wishes on successful outcomes, Andreasen.

Andreasen's argument is predicated on flawed assumptions. First, that creatively gifted persons are defective. Wrong. She misunderstands that perceptions creatively gifted persons are defective are external negative evaluations. These perceptions are flawed, based on observer bias. That person is not like us and ours, doesn't think or behave like us; therefore, that person is defective. Wrong.

Maladjusted behaviors are antisocial behaviors that harm the common good: violence, theft, malingering, among the top maladjusted behaviors. Divergent thinkers are not necessarily social defectives. Social defectives themselves serve a useful function, though no one wishes to be a victim of one or more. They drive life's more horrifying complications and lend to static life a variety of vigor no other activity matches. Though not a justification for acting out antisocially, malefactors are a necessary evil for vigorous extistence, without which society would be defenseless against predations on any scale, and otherwise stagnate and die.

Second, Andreasen's observer bias anticipates result outcomes. Mapping and imaging the brain in order to quantitatively and qualitatively locate giftedness as connected to non-normative mental processes ignores the spectrum gamut of individual creativity and non-normative mental processes, individual to specific individuals and individual to time, place, and situation. Which all have creative moments. Andreasen focuses her studies on exceptionally gifted persons and uses less or ungifted control groups who are equally capable of creativity intermittently.

An allowance must be made for control groups' life circumstances that stifle their creative expression and their lively moments of giftedness. Andreasen doesn't do so. Nor does she locate the very singular first principle that encourages gifted creative expression: isolation causes social beings' either "madness" or creative expression. And why: creativity is coping strategies for isolation from meaningful community belonging.

Third, Andreasen misses her own observer biases. She wants answers for her own experiences, and overlooks others' from that biased light. This is evidenced by her narrow focus on schizoprenia as most closely related to creativity, and to a lesser degree bipolar. This is also evidenced by her focus on recognized gifted subjects, overlooking creative giftedness in persons not recognized or as yet unrecognized.

Fourth, Andreasen assumes, as does the mental health industry, that schizophrenia or biploar or other emotional condition are in some way absolute diagnoses. Again, they are symptoms, not diseases. Again, they are assumed to be defects. They are not in and of themselves defects. Nor is an obsessive-compulsive condition. Persons who have one of the big-sexy personailty conditions, also autism spectrum as the fourth, might only present mild or intermittent moderate symptoms most of the time and live out their lives undiagnosed and creatively unfulfilled. Many so diagnosed persons do not meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis confirmation in the first place. Only extreme cases can be so confirmed subjectively. Many times, those diagnoses are in error too. Because, clinicians diagnose and treat symptoms prophylactically and often deepen harms. Mental health practices are as much social science as art, experimental science, and prone to misapprehensions from erroneous subjective assumptions.

If you're not like you're supposed to be, we will treat that. Who cares if you suffer anyway. If you stopped suffering, there would be no profit in that, one; and two, we don't really know what's wrong anyway. So let's try this--unsuccessful and as likely to cause more harm than no effect, maybe once in a while, some progress is made.

So what does Andreasen miss? What causes gifted creativity, non-normative mental processes, amplified free association activities, divergent thinking, melancholia, depression, eureka moments, epiphanies, suicides, etc.

Social isolation. For all, their condition is an associative attachment cycling between non-normative attachment, non-normative attachment dissociation, and normative attachment, at least outwardly. What defines normative attachment and non-normative attachment is at present and has been since civilization crowded folk into close contact a subjective criteria: gets along well with family, acquaintances, and personal interactions with peaceful strangers; is appropriately wary of strangers generally, and responsive to dangerous strangers: flight or fight or defuse or ignore: hostile, corrective, or shunning. Just because an otherwise peaceful non-normative person is different, that person draws those hostilities, corrections, and shunnings. That person is made even more non-normative and may be made antisocially maladjusted.

What is the cause of the initial non-normative attachment? A sequence of deep existential crises, identity crises, made isolated by made to feel of little or no value to a community: does not belong. A gifted person seeks reattachment. An antisocial person seeks revenge and retribution.

Andreasen touches on nature and nuture's role in existential crises, though she doesn't make the connection between nature and nurture for creativity and non-normative mental processes. That a natural human condition estranges non-normative persons. Not like me, so enemy; kill, punish, or exile. Not like you, so try hard to conform. Can't be like you, so try to contribute in socially meaningful ways anwyay, so that a sense of community belonging develops: creativity.

Nurture's role in creative reattachment processes and as coping strategies Andreasen also misses; that is, an isolated person can be given and develop independently or cooperatively a sense of community belonging, if the community makes an effort and the non-normative individual is given or allowed opportunities for creative expression contributions. It takes a village to raise a child; a village can as easily mess a child up for life. Thus monsters or creatively gifted persons are made.

What then to do to lessen suffering? Cope. Be responsibly mature, tolerate, understand, cooperate. Though cooperation be hard, the later outcomes will inevitably be harder.

[ July 07, 2014, 11:03 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Denevius
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quote:
I think many more people have the capacity for creativity than display it. What's missing is the need.
Though I'm reluctant to lump genius with some mental malady, I do think a little more than a "need" is needed.

Creativity is a broad word. We're probably at our most "creative" when we're really young. Kids lose themselves in the worlds of their minds in ways that usually adults can only simulate through drugs or alcohol. The "monsters" are genuinely real for a child, whereas adults have to have faith. Faith that there's a god, faith that there's the devil, faith that there's alien life, real vampires, or the Loch Ness monster.

As we age, we learn how to shut down our dreams, and then when you want to be a writer, you have to learn how to turn them back on again. Now sinking into the unreal takes effort, and sustaining it takes a particular willpower that many people aren't capable of.

Even still, though there are a lot of unfinished novels, there are an awful lot of finished novel, and I don't think all of those wannabe writers are doing it because of some great external need. I wonder if its even much of an internal need. In general, modern man has so much time on their hands that polishing off 90,000 words doesn't really prove ones love, or need, to write. It just proves that you're literate and was able to bat out a certain number of words, in a month, a year, or ten years (one of the reasons I've always hated Nanomonth is because it trivializes the sacred process of novel creation).

But the narratives (or the art) that really takes something old and sees it in a new and unexpected light. I don't think any amount of need is what brings that about. Like, a common cliche is the starving artist, and so you'll get people who try and replicate similar conditions to produce great works.

Or, like I said, those who engage in self-destructive, anti-social behavior because that's what a genius would do (which again, is one of my problems with this article).

I think the type of transcendent writing people who engage in the superficial aspects of the genius are looking for has less to do with madness being tempered with genius, or genius being tempered with madness, and more to do with luck. Is the story you're writing being written at the right time for the right audience?

As a writer, one of the things that troubles me most is the viral video, or the viral blog, because it really does show more than anything how little control you have in how far your narrative will go, or how impactful it will be.

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Grumpy old guy
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Well, what can I say, I'm a medical study of one into the relationship between certain neuro-chemicals in my brain and my ability to write. My ability burst forth in riotous bloom in an instant due, by my reckoning, to certain medication I was then taking which altered the neuro-chemical make-up of my brain. Before taking this medication I could barely write a paragraph long letter.

As is the case with mental disorders, once you feel normal you stop taking your medication certain that 'strength of will' will get you through now that you know the source of your problem. I crashed! I crashed so far, predominantly because for the first time in my life I had experienced normality, and then lost it again, that my psychiatrist said I was on the extreme end of severe depression and he wondered how I was able to function at all. So, back on the medication (with slight modifications) and I'm back here writing and pontificating.

The odd thing is that neither my psychiatrist nor my endocrinologist seem all that interested in my 'miraculous recovery'. All I can say is that I'm certain that my literary creativity is the result of changes in the chemical soup my brain swims in. Prior to this I was always visually creative, art, sculpture etc.

Oh, btw, despite being insane, I have been able to mimic functioning perfectly well and have lived fairly successfully in a 'normal' life.

Phil.

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by Denevius:
And I really dislike Kurt Vonnegut's writing, so there's that.

Likewise... "navel-gazer" was about my kindest description. Well, now I know why.
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Grumpy old guy
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Philip K Dick is a notable member of the group of damaged genii.

Phil.
Not including myself among the ranks of genii, or 'the damaged' for that matter.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Reziac:
quote:
Originally posted by Denevius:
And I really dislike Kurt Vonnegut's writing, so there's that.

Likewise... "navel-gazer" was about my kindest description. Well, now I know why.
A function of Vonnegut's writing is to learn others how to understand and appreciate him as a fellow human being, his attempt to reattach socially. He didn't get along well with family and acquaintances and sought more meaningful attachment.

Vonnegut reconciled his issues but satisfied none near the end of his life--his writing suffered for it. If only he'd more appreciated acceptance in order to be accepted, he might have had that globe shaking life epiphany he sought but couldn't put a thumb under. Tel est la vie d'escritur: Such is the life of writing--and such is life.

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Robert Nowall
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One point that shouldn't be neglected: a lot of writers have been driven to write by physical illness---being unable to do something more strenuous than sitting and writing. Heinlein washed out of the navy by contracting tuburculosis and was plagued by other serious health problems the rest of his life.
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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
A function of Vonnegut's writing is to learn others how to understand and appreciate him as a fellow human being, his attempt to reattach socially. He didn't get along well with family and acquaintances and sought more meaningful attachment.

If he didn't get along with family or with acquaintances, who the hell was left? Total strangers, I guess. Well, one's readers are mostly total strangers...

All very well for those who wish to read it, but Vonnegut's personal issues do not constitute my enjoyment. I've already had quite enough in my life of 'appreciating' people with issues.


"I'm tired of dealing with dysfunctional people." -- Oprah Winfrey

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Grumpy old guy
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Reziac, I'd warrant that most of us are dysfunctional to a certain extent and in certain areas. I've had a lifetime of navel gazing to understand that.

Phil.
Not channeling Kurt Vonnegut.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Reziac:
"I'm tired of dealing with dysfunctional people." -- Oprah Winfrey

Dysfunctional in its own light. Like rhetorics, deny one, unintentionally or otherwise, substitute another. I won't enumerate how Winfrey is dysfunctional, except her patent enabling caretaking codependence, not so much caregiving nurture.
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Reziac
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I appreciate the irony of the Winfrey quote. It wasn't ironic in context (it's from an interview when she announced why she was hanging up the talk show business... well, that didn't last!), but it is when seen from afar.

Yeah, we're all a bit nuts, I think that's a good deal of what makes us writers of fiction, and to some extent, readers of fiction. Some create escape, others merely indulge in it. However I don't think it's contingent upon readers to embrace our madness, even tho they may benefit from it.

The fact that readers and moreso writers are very minor fringe groups (per the numbers above) goes to demonstrate that we, like geniuses, are from a far corner of the bell curve, and naturally there's some intersection.

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