The Artistic Mind

The Artistic Mind

Minding the Arts and the Artists

Creativity Rests on the Fine Line Between Madness and Sanity - And Why Artists Need Both

Since the time of the Greek philosophers, those who wrote about the creative process emphasized that creativity involves a regression to more primitive mental processes, that to be creative requires a willingness to cross and recross the lines between rational and irrational thought.*

Creative individuals alternate between order and disorder, simplicity and complexity, sanity and craziness in an ongoing process of 'positive disintegration'. Frank Barron, a pioneer in the psychology of creativity, was the first researcher to describe this  fluidity.  

The researchers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence verified his claims by surveying 309 artists against workers with no artistic or creative background. 

The results, published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, revealed that creative individuals scored higher, both on measures of psychopathology and psychological health, essentially stating that artists are both 'crazier' and 'saner' than the non-artistic individuals. 

Alfonso Montuori, Professor at California Institute of Integral Studies emphasised the errors in the tendency of people's binary thinking in his research paper on Frank Barron, 'A Creator On Creating'. 

"The view that one is either crazy or healthy blinds us to the nature and effect of the relationship between the two. If you’re not either statically, sane (or crazy) but in a dynamic equilibrium between the two, occasionally flopping over on one side and occasionally on the other, then life becomes a much more ambiguous, uncertain process—a creative process, with all that it entails." He perceived Frank's theory as an 'invitation for us to think differently and creatively' — about creativity and go beyond the traditional polarizing ways of thinking that block the creative process.

However, it isn't just the scientists and psychologists who have drawn comparisons between the two. Artists themselves have expressed the need for mental disruption to be at their creative best. 

"The personal accounts of many creative writers and visual artists testify to their struggle with psychological problems. These findings suggest that the line between creativity and madness is a fine one, and probably permeable", Maureen Neihart states in her research paper Creativity, the Arts, and Madness. "Artists themselves argue that they strive to keep contact with their primitive selves because it is from their core self that they draw the energy and inspiration needed to do their best work. But many mental health professionals would propose that to wrestle often with the primitive self is like walking the edge between sanity and insanity."

But how do they identify the correlation between psychological vulnerabilities and enhanced creativity? 

The creative process is a mystery. We can know about pieces of it, but we are unlikely to unravel all of it. Even today, many questions remain unanswered. 

Zorona Pringle, Director of the Creativity and Emotions lab suggests, "Psychological vulnerabilities give people a perspective that helps them in understanding suffering and a broader range of diversifying experiences."

But, Baron attributes the correlation to creative artist's preference for complexity. "Creative subjects sought to find a way to take something quite complex and, in it, find a simple order. Creative people like things messy, disordered, ambiguous, and asymmetric but they also have a strong motivation to bring order and definition to the world."

Another factor at play here is a smooth integration of dichotomies. "Creative individuals were able to entertain many opposites in psychic life simultaneously. They may be at once naive and knowledgeable, being at home equally with primitive symbolism and rigorous logic, may be highly disciplined, yet quite free, at once masculine and feminine. This theory elegantly quoted as “the creative person is both more primitive and more cultivated, more destructive, a lot madder and a lot saner, than the average person", became a strong foundation of numerous psychological researches, all of which went on to show how 'a little bit of adversity can go a long way — but only if it doesn’t break you in the process'.

Dr. Claudia Diez is a clinical psychologist in New York with extensive experience working with artists (musicians, writers, filmmakers, actors, custom designers. Her experience spans more than two decades of cross-cultural training and practice in New York City and Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

Contact Dr. Diez directly to make your first appointment. Call (212) 744-8073

*Maureen Neihart. Article copyrighted by and originally published in the Roeper Review, The Roeper School, 1998, Volume 21, pp. 47-50