This was an article originally produced for Vice that never quite made it to publishing. I always thought that was a bit of a shame, partly because I believe the topic is interesting and important but also because I stayed up until 3am one morning to conduct a Skype interview with a professor from London. It is also potentially quite interesting for the fact that it is entirely unedited and you can see how painfully unreadable my science articles are when they reach an editor's inbox.
I have suffered from depression and anxiety at various times for the better part of a decade and as a writer, I rely on my creative ability for the majority of my (negligible) income. It’s not uncommon that I notice a relationship between creative productivity and my shitty disordered thinking; occasionally the stars and my depression will align and produce something creatively magnificent but in other periods, I will only find the cognitive capacity to watch Futurama re-runs for 3 weeks straight.
I began to wonder about the functions in the human brain that allow for creativity and how mental illness could possibly be related to these neurological processes. Are some people so-called right-brained humans predestined for creative greatness or is the picture more complicated than that? And if it’s true that madness begets creative genius, why in the fuck aren’t I Van Gogh when I boast the credentials on the ‘madness’ section of my resume?
To answer these questions I spoke to Dr Anna Abraham, a cognitive neurologist and psychologist based at Leeds Beckett University, a researcher who has produced copious papers on precisely these topics (she is intimidatingly intelligent and, I quickly realised during our phone interview, speaks exclusively in totally grammatical sentences).
For a start, it should be mentioned that the scientific literature investigating creativity is a relatively new discipline in the psychological sciences. Throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s the overwhelming impression in the scientific community was that creativity was an inherent quality of the person – you were either born with it or you weren’t – and creative geniuses were thought to possess qualities that were fundamentally different to average people.
This assumption has actually been dispelled in recent years and Dr Abraham explains, “Just as all of us have the capacity for attention and memory and language, we all have the capacity for creativity. You can talk about differences in creative ability but there aren’t qualitative differences between a creative and an uncreative brain”.
So what are the neurological processes behind creative thought and can we lend any credibility to those left-brain, right-brain memes that people seem to get off on so much?
The dominant theory in cognitive psychology of creativity at the moment defines two different types of thinking that we all engage in and the union between them. The first is what Dr Abraham describes as “The default-mode brain, which is at work when you are daydreaming and your mind is wandering”, this is the same network we use when we’re thinking about the past, the future, or imagining another person’s thoughts and it’s essentially a sort of open generative way of thinking. But just as important in creativity is the central executive network that controls goal-directed behaviours – this performs the task of evaluation and puts into action any worthwhile ideas.
You could be a wild unfettered ideas machine but you still need management to put you to work out when a decent idea comes along and equally, inform you when those ideas are just hot garbage.
As for the theory of right-brained geniuses, Dr Abraham clarifies, “It’s actually very complicated because the left-brain, right-brain idea is not accurate to the extent that it is propagated” but that’s not to say that it is a completely mistaken idea. The understanding of the left side of the brain as analytical and detail-focused and the right as holistic and generative actually fits quite nicely into the cognitive theory of creativity, the only issue is the over-emphasis on the right side of the brain.
“The way that I see it and I think most people would agree is that you need both and it’s about a balance between the two” explains Dr Abraham. She also points to cognitive research as the basis of this myth due to the over-emphasis of certain hemispheres in research basically because hemisphere-specific tasks were the easiest to use in a clinical setting and the media just ran with it too enthusiastically, “They’re not incorrect in spirit but in detail they are”.
So how does the science account for the relationship between mental illness and creative cognition? Well, the long and the short of it is that nobody’s quite sure yet. When I posed the question to Dr Abraham she gave a heavy sigh, “There is evidence of mental illness being elevated in certain creative professions but this is very limited evidence and the question is, “What came first?” right?” There are theories that mentally disordered people engage in more creative practices simply because they want to feel better but there are also researchers who maintain that creativity plainly increases mental health and well-being.
The use of creativity to deal with the struggles of mental illness also seems to fit quite nicely with certain motivational theories such as the Intrinsic Motivation Hypothesis of Creativity put forward by Dr Teresa Amabile, which points out that internal motivation is conducive to creativity whereas external motivators are not.
Reflecting on my own history, this model would satisfactorily explain why, in my depressive states, I seem to produce the best work whilst the pressures of money or impatient editors are totally counter-productive.
Dr Abraham has also posited her own theory of trend in the relationship between mental illness and creativity as an inverted “U” shape; in other words, there seems to be an optimal point of disordered function such as sub-clinical schizophrenia (schizotypal traits) for creative thought but after a certain point, this creativity is impaired by chronic mental illness. This could be otherwise perceived as a slight impairment in the processes of top-down thinking (this is the fancy psychological way of defining the generation of big ideas and filtering down to small details otherwise known as conceptually-driven thinking).
In other words, we can have madness but only up to a certain point in creative productivity, and Dr Abraham is quick to point out that even creative geniuses like Van Gogh were actually witnessed to be least productive in their most mentally disordered periods. Striking this balance is admittedly frustrating, particularly because we all exist on a fairly unpredictable sliding scale of mental wellness but it turns out that in a clinical setting kicking the necessary thought patterns for creativity is relatively easy.
In order to force the tiny manic artists in our brains and their management into unison and alter top-down cognition, all we need to do is reframe the tasks we’re doing in slightly different ways; Dr Abraham reports that pretty much any intervention will do: asking questions in a different way, changing our settings or trying new ways of approaching problems all seem to help generate a lot more ideas.
That being said, there’s no guarantee any of those ideas will be either original or good but hey, they can’t all be winners.