In the Media

Madness and the muse

The debate over whether madness contributes to creativity continues, with Keith Sawyer, the Morgan Distinguished Professor in Educational Innovations, in the middle of it.

A Chronicle of Higher Education column by Tom Bartlett explores the ideas of psychiatry researcher Nancy Andreasen, who presented at the Aspen Ideas Festival during the summer, describing examples through the ages of troubled artists such as Hemingway, Beethoven and Kurt Cobain.

Bartlett describes getting reactions from two creativity researchers, including Sawyer, who admitted to leaving the talk early. “I stayed for as much as I could take,” he told Bartlett.

The column explores Andreasen’s evidence that mental illness has often corresponded with creativity. She has reported finding high rates of mood disorders among participants of the University of Iowa’s renowned writing workshop.

But other researchers, including Sawyer, say the evidence is lacking.

Sawyer asserts that evidence actually points to creativity being more strongly associated with psychological stability.

Bartlett suggests the debate isn’t over.

Read the column here.

The Chronicle of Higher Education column follows coverage of the debate provided by Huffington Post earlier this month. The article “What neuroscience has to say about the ‘tortured genius” explored whether emotional troubles spark creativity following the suicide of comedian Robin Williams.

The article says researchers are split on whether there’s a link between mental illness and creativity, and summarizes some of the research.

Sawyer was cited in the article and weighed in strongly:

“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 from Sept. 2 is available here.