In the Media

What neuroscience has to say about the ‘tortured genius’

Following the suicide of comedian Robin Williams, many have wondered whether it’s true that “great art comes from great pain,” an idea that has long roots.

The Huffington Post talked to neuroscientists and creativity experts – including Keith Sawyer, the School of Education’s Morgan Distinguished Professor in Educational Innovations – to find out if there’s truth to the idea.

Sawyer, who has studied and written extensively about creative types and the creative process, says simply: No.

One problem lies in typically used measurements of creativity, Sawyer says, making creativity hard to quantify by scientists. Another difficulty for researchers lies in studying the brain – specifically where creativity happens and measuring activity there. But, Sawyer says, there’s not just one area of the brain that serves as a fount of creativity.

Attempts to use brain imaging techniques have failed to find a link between creative activity and mental illness, Sawyer and other researchers say in the article.

Summing up Sawyer’s stance:

“There is no link between creativity and mental illness, and researchers should stop looking for one. He wonders if perhaps researchers are still searching for a link so they'll be able to provide a patient with at least a bit of good news. ‘I think if you're treating people it can be helpful in therapy to tell your patient that their mental illness has a silver lining’ – namely, the gift of creativity, he said. ‘[I think] that's where their willingness to believe in a link comes from.’

The Huffington Post article is available here.