Creativity, Eccentricity, & Mental Illness

I love to pick up magazines at the airport that I don’t normally seek out. I often fantasize about subscriptions to them, but then I probably wouldn’t read them and that could get expensive. Or maybe I just like to believe providence will deliver the right issues to me the month I’m flying.

Scientific American Mind, this issue, rehashes a lot of old research regarding how creative “weirdos” are often thought to be “mad.” It seems bring up Lombroso is a fairly common way to introduce the “madness” element, despite his theories dating back to 1889 (Neihart, 1998, does it, too). Carson (in SAM) links creativity to schizophrenia and related schizoidal personality traits, but many of the commenters seem to feel she’s really talking about autism, Asperger’s, or ADHD. Neihart, meanwhile, describes the more commonly-perceived connection between creativity and depression or bipolar disorder.

Thing is, does it really matter? If you’re making your creativity work for you, if you’re mostly happy, if you’re functioning well enough in society — not necessary fitting your square peg into round holes, but maybe a nice square corner with a few other square pegs — then what difference does it make? Don’t get me wrong, neuroscience is fascinating and the implications of imaging advancements on psychology and psychiatry are indeed noteworthy, but how much of this is just people trying to justify grants by giving Big Pharma another excuse to offer pills? How much of it is hard science and soft science mud wrestling for free tee shirts?

SAM does start to address the practical applications of being a “free spirit” (my words, not hers), that person who’s creative and eccentric and maybe doesn’t fit the round hole, but with an overly positive view that makes light of the challenges of the square pegs. One of the commenters even calls Carson out on this, scoffing at the idea that big companies like Coca-Cola are hiring people to be creative and ignoring eccentricities as a trade-off. (Specifically, “CRCohen” says: “It’s either a joke or I’m living in a different dimension called Creative Squelch and Squat: you get squelched, you get squat.”) Perhaps it’s regional, but I have to say my experience has been similar to CRCohen’s. While eccentricity wasn’t so much valued as tolerated at the smaller company, all that unfocused energy was partly responsible for the place going under; at the larger company, eccentricity was only tolerated by a few for a few and everyone else was supposed to be as normal as they could manage.

For those with the freedom to walk around with wooden samurai swords in the office, Mark McGuinness offers some tips on unleashing your creative eccentricities over at the 99%. He does not, however, question your mental health.

Neihart, M. (1998). Creativity, the Arts and Madness. Roeper Review, 21(1), 47+.