Creativity and mental illness: a tale of reconciliation.

In this week’s blog, I am exploring theatrical activity and its potential risk of perpetuating mental disorders. I am also suggesting that creativity in general is considered inherently risky because of its historical connections with mental illnesses. However, thanks to the contemporary analytical and diagnostic tools such as fMRI, neuroscientists are able to explore in depth the neural circumstances of both mental disorders and creative processes. The results provide hopeful de-stigmatizing materials that could eliminate the fearful connection between creativity and mental illness. In this blog, I present the latest neuroscientific explorations of neural paradigms that creativity shares with schizotypy. In particular, the latest studies confidently assert that positive schizotypy and creativity display similar processing of negative emotional information.

While engaging in any creative activity, a human creature may find oneself on the edge of a mental or/and emotional overstimulation.When performing such an activity as acting, for example, human body and mind are put in a quite risky state of existence where reality of the self is blended with the non-existent other. Acting involves recreating emotions and behaviors in a way that fits the given material (the narrative). Acting just like any other type of creativity is an immersive state of mind. Any kind of pure artistic expression is selfless, self-dissolving, and involves a deviation from conventional definitions of things. However, defining creativity is as difficult as finding a universal definition of love. In psychology, neuroscience and interdisciplinary literature, there is one common characteristic that is always mentioned: ability to combine the incompatible ideas via abstract, novel connections (Fisher, 2004; Mihov, 2010; Carson, 2011).

Damasio (2014, pp. 64-65) lists the “requirements” for creativity: motivation, courage, extensive experience, apprenticeship, insight into the working of the self and into the workings of other minds. All of the above, especially the latter, fits perfectly with the essence of acting and theatre-making: it requires the ability to integrate the materials provided by the playwright (such as the text/script), as well as the directorial vision, aesthetics, dramaturgy (historical context of the play), design, and much more. On the neurological level, creativity also requires the strong generation of representational diversity, as well as working memory with a large capacity, the ability to recognize novel representations, and sharply tuned decision-making apparatus. (Damasio, 2014, pp. 65)

Fink (2014) references Carson (2011) and the ideas of cognitive disinhibition or neural hyperconnectivity which prevails among creative people. They also often have diverse associations, uninhibited generation, divergent problem-solving strategies (Nusbaum, 2014, pp. 399). Carson’s (2011) idea of “shared vulnerability model” mentions in particular the aspect of low latent inhibition, which, if translated into affective language, is no different from sensitivity (Djikic & Oatley, 2014). Creative individuals are more sensitive to the emotional events/stimuli; they are also often inclined to retain more negative affective information. They get caught up in experiencing their unfiltered emotions, just like they engage in multitasking cognitive processing and imagination. “Artists are vulnerable to tipping into rumination and anxiety instead of active exploration” (Djikic & Oatley, 2014, pp. 287). Logically, this high susceptibility to their emotions puts creative people in a category with higher risk of an emotional disbalance and potentially a mental illness.

Just like creativity is a term that covers multiple types of creative processes, mental illness is an umbrella term that encompasses many disorders. Among the ones that are most commonly associated with creativity are addictions (alcohol, drugs, and nicotine), anxiety disorders, depression, mood disorders, psychosis, suicide, schizotypy and schizophrenia (for more detailed historical review, see Simonton, 2014, pp. 25-41; Carson, 2011). Now, from the evolutionary perspective, it seems that some mental illnesses are passed down to the next generations because they convey creativity as an adaptive feature. (McCreery, 2002; Fisher, 2004; Keri, 2009) Positive schizotypal symptoms, for example, can be as creatively fostering as debilitating. (Nusbaum, Carson, pp. 399-400)

Schizotypy is conceptualized as “increased vulnerability to developing psychotic- or schizophrenia-like symptoms” (Fink, 2014; O’Reilly, 2001) There are positive symptoms traits such as “aberrant perceptions and beliefs” and “cognitive disorganization/social anxiety”, as well as negative aspects, for example “emotional blunting” and “introverted anhedonia” (Green, 1999). Positive schizotypical traits such as unusual perceptual experiences or magical beliefs are associated with higher levels of creativity (B. Nelson & Rawlings, 2010). The study by Fink et al. (2014) showed that the low-schizotypy group had more activation in the left lateralized language-related ROIs, as well as in frontal regions that are associated with processes such as attentional cognitive control, semantic selection, or (verbal) working memory processing. (pp. 385) Again, we see the idea of mental, controlled neuro-behavior increasing with the decrease of schizotypical traits. From various studies of neuroscience of creativity it seems that creative people include many more events/stimuli in their mental processes than less creative, “normal” people. In the latest book “Creativity and Mental Illness” (ed. Kaufman, 2014) the contributing authors overall argue that the only provable link between the two is the use of unconventional thinking strategies.

Drus (2014) suggests a logical idea: if psychopathological and creative individuals show cognitive similarities in general information processing, they may as well extend to the processing of emotional information. For example, “individuals who exhibit positive schizotypal personality traits are more likely to report lower clarity of emotions and to show an increased response bias (i.e., higher false alarm rates) for negative words in a memory task” (Drus, 2014, pp. 252). Common among creative people, the inability to effectively restore negative emotional states caused by increased introspection may mediate the relation between creativity and the emotional experiences. The results of the study by Drus et. al (2014) suggest that “creativity is associated with both a higher sensitivity for information processing and a more liberal response for negative information via low emotional repair” (Drus, 2014, pp. 259). In this study, creative individuals exhibited a high sensitivity to informational content overall, but they overemphasized the significance of negative content, as is the case with some clinical populations. It is likely that due to an inability to restore negative emotions effectively creative people tend to experience a propensity to rumination and introspection.

Creativity can be scary. Acting can be detrimental to mental health. It involves the loss of self, letting go of control over one’s thinking and feeling processes. It certainly can (and does!) evoke unusual emotions such as bewilderment, chaotic excitement and fear of the unknown. While working with the young artists and students, it is crucial to create the awareness about the risks that creative expression comes with. Creativity requires courage. Neurophysiologically, it also may involve processes similar to some serious mental illnesses. In the professional world of performing arts people dedicate all their time and energy to embodying some non-existing characters and living through someone else’s stories, and chances of slipping into the realm of mental illnesses are dangerously big. By providing a neuro-scientific analysis of the mechanisms involved in performing imaginary stories and emotions, there is a hope to create a set of tools and theories that would help performers (both professional and studying) to avoid dangerous psychiatric consequences of theatre-making (in particular, acting) and creative activities in general.


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