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The Mad Gene: Creativity and Mental Illness

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Biology 202, Spring 2005
Second Web Papers
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The Mad Gene: Creativity and Mental Illness

by Student Contributor

One could argue that if there was anything cliché about Ron Howard's film A Beautiful Mind, it was the recycled theme of the "mad genius." Russell Crow played John Nash, the brilliant, asocial mathematician who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994. It's hard to critique the novel as cliché, however, because the concept of the "mad genius" wasn't cultivated – Nash, indeed, suffered from serious mental illness. Nash wasn't the only creative thinker to contribute to the "mad genius" phenomenon; twentieth century American poet Sylvia Plath, who was believed to have suffered from severe bipolar disorder, committed suicide in 1963. Nineteenth century painter, Vincent Van Gogh, spent the later years of his life at the St. Remy Asylum after his infamous act of mutilating his ear. The list goes on. The observation that there exists a link between creativity and mental illness is not a recent one; Aristotle once wrote that eminent philosophers, politicians, poets, and artists all have tendencies toward "melancholia" (1).

There have been numerous studies in the past century examining the "mad genius" phenomenon, the most impressive of these studies conducted in 1987 by Nancy C. Andreasen (6). Conducting her studies at the infamous center for creative writing, The University of Iowa Workshops, Andreasen examined 30 writers and found that 80% had experienced at least one episode of major depression, hypomania, or mania. Andreasen also examined 30 controls and found that 0% had experienced some form of mental disorder (6). It was also found that there was a higher prevalence of mental disorder and creativity in the writer's first degree relatives compared to that of the control, suggesting that "mad genius" might be a genetically heritably trait (6).

It appears that the most common mental disorder amongst creative thinkers is bipolar disorder. This illness is characterized by four stages: major depressive, mixed, hypomanic, and manic episodes (5). During major depressive and mixed, the patient usually suffers from apathy, lack of energy, hopelessness, sleep disturbance, and slowed thinking (3). In the episodes of hypomania and mania, the mood is generally elevated, activity and energy levels increase, the need for sleep decreases, and speech is often rapid and excitable.

These observations led to some interesting questions: Does creativity cause bipolar disorder? Does the type of creativity matter? Psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg argues that there isn't a link and, in fact, because mental illness disrupts the cognitive and emotional processes necessary for creative thinking, highly creative people do better when they are treated for their mental illnesses (1). In direct opposition to this argument is HimaBindu Krishna's assertion that drug treatment often subjugates the creativity in the patient (5). Andreasen's conclusion regarding her observations of the University of Iowa writers supports Rothenberg's argument; she has found that most writers write when their mood is "normal," neither elevated nor depressed (6). In fact, when writers claim to suffer from severe depressive episodes, their writing usually suffers.

Does the type of creativity matter? Not really. Bipolar disorder affects a high percentage of people in artistic professions, including but not limited to, writers, poets, artists, and musicians (1). Interestingly, in a more recent study carried out by psychologist James Kaufman, it was found that female poets were more likely than fiction writers to have signs of mental illness, such as suicide attempts or hospitalizations, a phenomenon Kaufman has dubbed "the Sylvia Plath effect" (4).

The recent discussions in Neurobiology 202 provide some interesting insight into these above observations. If the neocortex and the rest of the nervous system are intimately connected through a series of pathways, and so inevitably leave traces of each other long after communication has ceased (if it ever does cease), it is not unbelievable that ailments of the "unconscious" can effect the "storyteller." Or to put it more simply, if the unconscious causes an individual to suffer from serious depressive illness, it is likely that the changes made to the nervous system following the disorder may cause some changes in the neocortex. Nothing in the body exists as an isolated system. Of course, the changes made do not necessarily have to translate into the ability to have creative impulses. But it shouldn't come as a surprise that a serious physical ailment of the body will probably have an effect on another seemingly unrelated part of the body.

It is important to note that there has been some speculation suggesting that the rise of mental illness in creative communities is due to the fact that there is much more toleration of mental illness than there is in the rest of society, and not an innate occurrence (1). Artists feel safe in a community that, to some respects, seems to value mental disorder in its members. But the nature of the creative profession is also not conducive to healthy living; there are very few jobs that have a higher rejection rate, that demand a serious removal of both mental and physical faculties to allow for serious speculation, and often writers find themselves absorbed in uncommonly shared symbols that can leave one feeling misunderstood.

While the above assertions are valid, it is hard to define the high occurrence of mental illness in writers as nothing more than a coincidence. Interesting questions to further explore would be why individuals decide to become writers in the first place. Does creativity run in the family, and if so, does a history of mental illness also run in the family? Is there such a thing as the creativity gene? Was it the feeling of alienation that led to the need to write, or did writing lead to the feeling of alienation? These are question that are well worth exploring to help shed light on the phenomenon of the "mad genius."


1) Bailey, Deborah Smith. "The Sylvia Plath Effect."

2) Davis, Laurie. "Mental illness meets creativity in new journal of literary arts." Chicago Chronicle. 2002. 21:11

3) Jamison, Kay Redfield. "Suicide and manic-depressive illness in artist and writers." National Forum. Wntr 1993. 73: 28

4) Kaufman, James C. "The Cost of the Muse: Poets Dies Young." Death Studies. 27: 813-821.

5) Krishna, HimaBindu. "Bipolar Disorder and the Creative Genius."

6) "Virginia Woolf's Psychiatric History: Creativity and Psychiatric Disorder."

Comments made prior to 2007
please don't site movies in your reports because A Beautiful Mind was a badly romanticized version of a wonderful book about the tortured life of John Nash ... Christine, 27 April 2006


Rosa's picture

Neurobiology 202?

Please, can anyone help me as to what is meant by 'Neurobiology 202'? I am writing an essay on this subject and cannot find your source.

Ann Dixon's picture

course forums

"Neurobiology 202" refers to an undergraduate course at Bryn Mawr College. The online discussion forum that this author is referring to is located here:


Hope this helps,


Sue Eller's picture

The Mad Gene: Creativity and Mental Illness

I believe there is a definite link between creativity and mental illness. I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When I was at my lowest I was able to write poetry. Not depressing poetry but poetry of when I was young, the good times, abstract thoughts. I wrote about things I hadn't experienced but felt I could empathize with others. After conquering the depression I can no longer write poetry. Only now after several years in recovery am I able to write articles or short stories. This only since I've experienced loss in my life. I believe if I had known the medication would rob me of the one thing I really enjoyed I would have thought twice before agreeing to take it. I look at some of our creative geniuses and wonder if maybe they might have been experiencing depression at the time. I know people who are afraid of losing their creativity so they refuse treatment. I can't say I blame them. I realize this is only my opinion but after 60 plus years I believe I'm entitled to it.

Sue Eller's picture

Bipolar and creativity

I love to write and i used to write poetry. But since I started "recovering" my poetic abilities, ideas, creative juices whatever you want to call them have dried up. I can still write articles and reality based stories. But i feel like my imagination is on vacation. i thought maybe i was just in a slump but i just can't seem to get it back and i really miss it. Has anyone else experienced this and did you find a way back short of stopping your meds?