I get quite a buzz whenever I encounter anything very thought-provoking – whether it be another blog, a novel, a quote, or, as was the case on the week-end, a talk. More specifically, it was a panel discussion that was part of the World Science Festival. (I also randomly attended one that was kind of linked to International Women’s Day, but it might be a while before I get around to posting about it.)
I went to this talk/discussion/whatever-you-want-to-call-it on Saturday, and I’ve been thinking about what they discussed, and I’ve realised that there is so much that I want to write about. And what a wonderful feeling that is!
Let’s start with the basics of it: The blurb for the event says that bipolar and schizophrenia have been linked with “high creativity and intelligence”, and that this link is backed by research. In fact, two of the panel members were researchers who have done studies on this: Nancy Andreasen has conducted studies using MRI, and she also talked a bit about extensive interviews that were conducted as well. Simon Kyaga conducted larger population studies, including one involving over 1 million Swedish patients (apparently the Swedish (and Danish) keep extensive population records that include details about each citizen’s psychiatric health, as well as their occupation).
It was said that people with bipolar are drawn to creative careers because they have a heightened “reward sensitivity”, which also makes them more ambitious (chasing that exhilaration that comes with creation). Those with schizophrenia are generally creative because they tend to challenge norms, and there’s a lot of originality in their thinking. Kyaga’s research also found that there was a greater likelihood for the siblings or parents of a person with either bipolar or schizophrenia to have a job that was considered creative.
Of course, when you have studies like these that are concerned about creativity, you inevitably come across the problem of defining creativity, which is an interesting question in itself. I think it was Andreasen who suggested defining creativity as an ability to perceive relationships and associations that other people cannot see. Conversely, Kyaga seemed, for purposes of his research, to regard creativity as relating to art and aesthetics. Certainly, neither is wrong. I do, nonetheless, appreciate that Andreasen included mathematicians and scientists in her research, acknowledging not just their capacity but also their need for creativity in what they do.
However, as much as I would be interested in learning more about the works of Andreasen and Kyaga, and as much as I’m fascinated by these findings, and even as much as I’m hung up on the semantics of it all; the speaker I found to have the most to say (quality-wise) was Neil Cole. Cole is a former politician who has written numerous plays and books, and who also has bipolar. I’m not sure if it’s just my personal interest, or because I’m a health professional (probably a mix of both) but I’m just really fascinated by the “patient experience”.
Cole talked a bit about his own experiences with writing and with mental illness; and about being diagnosed and undertaking treatment. There was something kind of comforting and inspirational in listening to him speak about all this. He had said that, before being diagnosed, he had felt as if there were millions of thoughts racing through his mind; and that taking prescribed medication had helped settle his thoughts a bit, and make them more manageable. Andreasen also asserted that treatment does not diminish creativity, but can, perhaps, help facilitate or channel it more effectually.
Personally, for someone who is drawn to creative pursuits (primarily in the form of writing, but occasionally with cooking as well), I must admit that I have wondered if my mind was venturing anywhere near the vicinity of psychiatric illness (sub-clinical, perhaps). I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels as if they go through sort of “manic” phases of high productivity, alternating with “depressive” phases of feeling tortured by your own art. (Of course, these swings are probably not quite as dramatic as I might make them out to be.) With all considered, there were two reassurances the panel gave us in the end:
First, that you don’t have to have a mental illness to be creative, and that being creative does not necessarily mean that you have a mental illness. Cole acknowledged that bipolar was a difficult condition to manage – one that he would prefer not to have, and one that he wouldn’t wish upon others. However, knowing this, he affirmed that we need to help people with psychiatric disorders realise their potential, because they really do have the potential to make great contributions to society and culture.
Second, that everyone in the general population has some capacity to be creative. Regardless of what you do for a living, or what you do day-to-day, there is some scope, however small, for creativity. For example, most people would probably consider science and mathematics to be quite cut-and-dried, set in rules and equations; but there’s a lot of problem-solving involved, which requires creative thinking, and, as Andreasen reiterated perhaps more than once, there is beauty in science.