At first glance,
Einstein, Salvador Dali, Tony Hancock, and Beach Boy Brian Wilson
would seem to have little in common. Their areas of physics, modern
art, comedy, and rock music, are light years apart. So what, if
anything, could possibly link minds that gave the world the theory
of relativity, great surreal art, iconic comedy, and songs about
new research, psychosis could be the answer. Creative minds in all
kinds of areas, from science to poetry, and mathematics to humour,
may have traits associated with psychosis. Such traits may allow
the unusual and sometimes bizarre thought processes associated with
mental illness to fuel creativity. The theory is based on the idea
that there is no clear dividing line between the healthy and the
mentally ill. Rather, there is a continuum, with some people having
psychotic traits without having the debilitating symptoms.
have been around for thousands of years. Evolutionary theory suggests
that in order for them to be still here, there must be some kind
of survival advantage to them. If they were wholly bad, it’s argued,
natural selection would have seen them off long ago. In some cases
the advantage is clear. Anxiety, for example, can be a mental illness
with severe symptoms and consequences, but it is also a trait that
at a non-clinical level has survival advantages. In healthy proportions,
it keeps us alert and on our toes when threats are sensed.
It’s now increasingly
being argued that there are survival advantages to others forms
of illness, too, because of the links between the traits associated
with them and creativity. "It can be difficult for people to
reconcile mental illness with the idea that traits may not be disabling.
While people accept that there are health benefits to anxiety, they
are more wary of schizophrenia and manic depression," says
Professor Gordon Claridge, emeritus professor of abnormal psychology
at Oxford University, who has edited a special edition of the journal
Personality and Individual Differences, looking at the links between
mental illness and creativity. "There is now a feeling that
these traits have survived because they have some adaptive value.
To be mildly manic depressive or mildly schizophrenic brings a flexibility
of thought, an openness, and risk-taking behaviour, which does have
some adaptive value in creativity. The price paid for having those
traits is that some will have mental illness."