Winston’s Black Dog and Vincent’s Left Ear – Creativity & Mental Illness

Yes, you can believe it now: madness is linked to creativity.

The latest  study, involving 1.2 million people and their close relatives (to second cousin level) by Sweden’s  Karolinska Institutet, is the most comprehensive thus far. Artists and scientists alike are prone to manic depression (bipolar) and tend to have relatives who are also afflicted. But the most commonly linked group is authors, who are more likely to be schizophrenic and have 50% higher rates of suicide than the general public.

However, one does not always bring the other – many other factors, including learning, training and discipline make the difference between accomplished madness and just madness. And this brings up the surprising inclusion of scientific researchers in this group. Scientists are known for their methodical approach, different from artists’; but nevertheless in observing the world and searching for patterns and connections, scientists need creativity just as much as artists.

Winston Churchill, greatness itself, who led Britain to triumph in WWII as prime minister, considered himself a writer, not a politician. * And he also had his black dog, his depressive interludes between heights of creativity and action. Many believe that had he been a usual, normal, rational leader at a time when all the odds were against Britain, the country would not have been so inspired and rallied. His illness had been part of his greatness – psychiatrists have posthumously diagnosed him as manic depressive. In fact, to emphasize this attribute of the ‘mad genius’ in him, the British mental health charity, Rethink, even commissioned  in 2006  a statue of Churchill in a straitjacket to counter the common stigma against mental illness. (As only Brits would but still it caused much controversy).

Churchill was also an accomplished painter and bricklayer, among many other things. The brick wall in the garden of his Chartwell estate in Kent, England was his handiwork (astoundingly precise and neat) – he was proud of a membership card from the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers. And these days one of his paintings can fetch over a million dollars at auction.

Van Gogh’s loss of his left ear was famous – that he had cut it off in a fit of desperation.  However a new theory has recently emerged that it had been cut off by Gauguin’s sword during an argument. In either case, his manic depression was well documented, as is that of many, many artists and creative people.

We now know that  neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine play important roles in our mental state, with complex relationships to manic depression.

Manic depression may involve cycling levels of norephinephrine in the frontal lobe; high levels may be responsible for the depressive symptoms, while  low levels result in novel connectivity within the frontal lobe, and creative or bizarre ideas

It is thus for good reason that many artists and writers believe that emotional extremes, turmoil and suffering are important ingredients in their art making.  They are reluctant to use anti-depressive drugs like lithium, which many claim makes life feel “flatter”, and “more colorless.”

Real men don’t take drugs.

*  Churchill earned £ 9,000 back in 1899 as a young reporter during the Boar war in South Africa for the story he wrote about his escape from prison.

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