On more than one occasion we will have heard that there is a close link between creativity (and even genius) and psychopathology. Many great exponents of different arts such as painting, literature or poetry have been known to manifest symptoms of different psychiatric disorders.

When we talk about arts like painting or sculpture, we usually refer to the suffering of manic pictures or psychotic outbreaks, in which there is a break with reality (being this break the one that facilitates the creation of something new). But depression has also been associated with creativity and great works. That is why in this article we are going to talk about the relationship between creativity and depression, a relationship that is not usually talked about as often as with other pathologies.

What is depression?

Before going straight into the relationship between creativity and depression, it may be useful to briefly review the concepts we are talking about.

Major depression is understood as a mental disorder or psychopathology characterized by the presence of a sad and/or anhedonian mood or difficulty in feeling pleasure or satisfaction for most of the time for at least two weeks, along with other symptoms such as sleep disturbances (there may be insomnia and nighttime awakening or hypersomnia) and appetite disturbances (usually causing a loss of appetite), mental sluggishness or bradypsychia, psychomotor agitation or retardation, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and possible thoughts of death and suicide (although not all of these symptoms are necessary).

It is a disorder that generates a high level of suffering, in which cognitive biases are produced which in turn lead to the existence of a cognitive triad; negative and hopeless thoughts about oneself, the world and the future and in which there is a high negative affectivity and a low positive affectivity and energy. It has serious effects on the way of seeing the world, and usually generates a great limitation in the different areas of life.

The person is usually focused on his depressive thoughts, loses the desire and motivation to act, loses the ability to concentrate, and tends to isolate himself (although initially the environment becomes protective and pays more attention to the subject, in the long run there is usually a tiredness of the situation and a progressive distancing).

What about creativity?

With regard to creativity, this is understood as the capacity to elaborate new ways and options to do things , to generate new strategies to reach an end. It requires different skills, such as memory and capacity for divergent thinking. Especially, it requires imagination to make a link between reality and the elements to be created. On an artistic level, one of the most recognized and considered pure forms of creativity also requires introspection and self-awareness, as well as great sensitivity to capture emotions. It is also usually related to intuition.

Art has also often been associated with suffering. It makes the subject reflect and deepen what it is, how it feels and how the world feels. Authors like Freud relate the creativity of the artist with pathologies and child traumas , being a way to open up to the conflicts and the desires and fantasies present in the unconscious.

The relationship between creativity and depression

The link between depression and creativity is not something recent: already in ancient times, Aristotle proposed that philosophers, poets and artists usually have a melancholic character.

This idea has been evolving and persisting throughout history, with some great thinkers, philosophers, inventors and artists being found to have characteristics characteristic of depressed subjects with mood disorders (also including bipolar disorder). Dickens, Tennessee Williams or Hemingway are, among many others, examples of this. And not only in the world of art, but also in science (Marie Curie being one example).

But this relationship is not based only on assumption or concrete examples: many scientific studies have been carried out to assess this relationship. The data from a large number of these studies analyzed in the meta-analysis carried out by Taylor, from which this article is based, shows that there is indeed a relationship between both concepts.

Two views of this relationship

The truth is that if we analyze the symptomatology present in a large part of the depressions (lack of desire, anhedonia, psychic and motor slowing…), the relationship between depression and creativity (which implies a certain level of mental activation and the fact of creating) may seem strange and counter-intuitive. But, at the same time, we have to think that it also implies a focus on what one thinks and feels (even if those thoughts are negative), as well as to pay attention to details of what disturbs us. It is also common for creative works to be done in a moment of recovery or return to normal functioning after going through an episode.

However, the fact that this relationship exists has a double reading: it is possible that the person with depression will see his or her creativity enhanced, or that creative people will tend to suffer from depression.

The truth is that the data do not largely support the first of the options. People with major depression were shown in different trials to be more creative in areas such as painting (interestingly, artistic creativity is most associated with this type of disorder). However, the differences were relatively modest and in many cases were not considered statistically significant.

Regarding the second option, that is, the fact that creative people usually have a higher level of depression , the results are much clearer and evident: they reflect that there is a moderate to high relationship between depression and creativity (although it seems that the relationship is greater with bipolar disorder). People with a higher level of sensitivity, including artistic sensitivity often associated with creativity, are prone to depression. They tend to feel emotions more intensely and focus more on details, and are usually more affected by events and thoughts.

However, this relationship occurs with major depressive disorders, in which depressive episodes appear and are eventually overcome (although they may reappear in the future). Disorders such as dysthymia, in which there is no depressive episode in itself that ends up being overcome, are not related to greater creativity. One possible reason for this is the fact that having a mood disorder makes it easier to look inward and focus on how we feel and interpret the world , something that other people may not think about to the same extent. And these reflections can be expressed in different types of works, such as literature, poetry or painting, awakening creativity.

The Sylvia Plath Effect

This link between mental illness and creativity, especially in the field of poetry. It has been found, in the study of different authors throughout history, that on average people who are dedicated to poetry (and especially women) tend to die younger, often as a result of suicide . In fact, the percentage of suicides went from 1% to 17%. This was baptized by Dr. James Kauffman as the Sylvia Plath effect or Plath effect.

The name in question comes from a famous poetess, who suffered from depression (although today there is speculation that she may have suffered from bipolar disorder), who ended up committing suicide at the age of thirty after several attempts throughout her life and whose works often contain reflections linked to death.

Bibliographic references:

  • Taylor, C.L. (2017). Creativity and Mood Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 12 (6): 1040-1076. New York
  • Kaufman, J.C. (2001). The Sylvia Plath Effect: Mental Illness in Eminent Creative Writers. J Creative Behaviour, 35:37-50.