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Blog 11: Being trapped in-between waking and dreaming:  the bad news

15th July 2020

Many creative people suffer from what we call mental illnesses or disorders. For example, Kay Redfield Jamison, an American psychiatrist, thinks it likely that Blake, Byron, Schumann, Van Gogh, and Woolf all had manic depression, now called bipolar disorder.  This condition has both manic, when the person is high, elated, full of energy, confidence and enthusiasm but, sometimes to the extent, that they pace around and can’t sleep, and depressive phases, when the person is low, apathetic, lack-lustre, can take no pleasure in life, sometimes to the extent that they only want to sleep and may become suicidal.  Redfield Jamison’s book “Touched by Fire”  starts with a quote from Byron, ‘We of the craft are all crazy’ he said of himself and his fellow poets ‘Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy but all are more or less touched.’

Scientific evidence on the links between creativity and mental illness comes from several sources: brain imaging, genetics, epidemiological studies, and experimental research. Brain imaging shows that creative people think more broadly, known as divergent thinking, and so do people with schizotypy, a mild form of schizophrenia. Genetic risk scoring demonstrates that creatives are 25% more likely to possess genes that raise the risk for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Epidemiological research, which uses large samples over many years, reveals links between creativity and mental disorders. For example, in a study of 300,000 people over 30 years  people with bipolar disorder (and the siblings of those with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) were disproportionally present in the creative professions. Experimental research shows increased creativity in people with bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions.

I’ve emphasised that creativity depends on making non-obvious associations. Maybe Byron was right when he said all poets are crazy because, arguably, more than any other creative form, poetry plays out through non-obvious associations. Those with what we call “mental illness” also make non-obvious, creative or loose associations. Eugen Bleuler, the psychiatrist who  coined the terms schizophrenia, schizoid and autism, noted that a core characteristic of mental disorders was what he termed a “loosening” of associations. It’s not hard to see that the creativity of the poet Raymond Carver, who saw the loose association between death and dry cleaning, is so not far away from the delusional thinking that associates death with a MI5 conspiracy plot to kill or believes there is a clandestine MI7 which mops up extraterrestrial attacks. Such thinking builds fear.

Are they out to get me?

In contrast, normally, personally meaningful associations create a secure sense of self – including the experience of being the same person across time.  For example, I associate my love of books and writing with a memory of being about 10 years old. I was walking alone to the library on a dark, wet, cold, blustery autumnal evening, thinking of growing up: what would I be like, what would I be doing at 15? 25? 35? 45? Now I know, but back then I had no idea. In many ways I am a very different person than I was at 10 years old- I couldn’t be that 10 year old child, I couldn’t even inhabit the mind I had at 45. But these personally meaningful associations across time give me a sense of continuity – I’m still that person, that self, who gets excited when I open a new book.

In mental health disorders, at the same time as loose, sometimes paranoid associations begin to dominate thinking, the loss of personally meaningful associations results in what Bleuler termed a fragmented self- to the extent that a coherent sense of being oneself is lost.

Fragmented self-  Losing oneself

As I write this, the year is 2020, the person whose diary appears above seems to have lost themselves five years ago. Was this loss to mental illness?

This blog has explored the possible upsides, creativity, and downsides, mental health disorders, of de-differentiation, arguing that the link between them is a  hybrid state of waking and dreaming. But this neglects those creative people who don’t show an ounce of craziness and those crazy people who aren’t at all creative.

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