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Creativity and madness: The Abnormal Psychology of Creativity

Posted Apr 28 2010 11:36am

Just what is ‘normal’ for a creative person?

After trying clumsily to conform to what others consider normal for much of my life, I’m beginning to appreciate my own moods and personality.

Are creative people like us ‘abnormal’?  In his paper The Abnormal Psychology of Creativity, Steven James Bartlett writes….

Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, who was hospitalized several times for psychiatric illness, remarked: “A German once said to me: ‘But if you could rid yourself of many of your troubles.’ To which I replied: ‘They are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and it would destroy my art. I want to keep those sufferings’ ” (quoted in Stang, 1979, p. 107).

No one chooses severe emotional distress. Yet, clearly some artists, like Munch, have chosen to accept it rather than escape from it. Bartlett shares Kay Redfield Jamison’s take on why they do:

Writing about Munch’s claim, Jamison (1993, p. 241) noted This is a common concern. Many artists and writers believe that turmoil, suffering, and extremes in emotional experience are integral not only to the human condition but to their abilities as artists. They fear that psychiatric treatment will transform them into normal, well-adjusted, dampened, and bloodless souls—unable, or unmotivated, to write, paint, or compose.

There is no doubt that negative moods and the power of mania can sometimes make positive contributions to creative thought. But they do not of course of themselves produce it, or every sufferer from abnormal mood intensity and swings would show signs of creativity.

Yet it is typical of anyone who engages in creative work to feel excited, elated, perhaps euphoric or ecstatic, to feel increased self-confidence, the mental efficiency of speed combined with focused concentration, zest, perhaps expansiveness and heightened mental clarity.

In addition, when experiences  like these are labeled as ’symptoms’ of pathology, creative people can develop a skewed sense of self, and a narrowed view of the possibilities of human experience.

And, in a parallel fashion, unhappiness, profound sadness, and grief can no less be the inner partners to creative effort, as novelist Herman Melville, who suffered from severe variations of mood, commented: “The intensest light of reason and revelation combined, can not shed such blazonings upon the deeper truths in man, as will sometimes proceed from his own profoundest gloom. Utter darkness is then his light, and cat-like he distinctly sees all objects through a medium which is mere blindness to common vision” (Melville 1852/1995, p. 242).

There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that, compared to “normal” individuals, artists, writers, and creative people in general, are both psychologically “sicker”—that is, they score higher on a wide variety of measures of psychopathology—and psychologically healthier (for example, they show quite elevated scores on measures of self-confidence and ego strength). (Jamison, 1993, p. 97).

Definitions of ’sick’ and ‘well’ may not always be helpful. Perhaps psychology itself is ‘abnormal’ and will benefit from new paradigms of what it is to be human as creative people embrace their complex psyches.

Source: The Abnormal Psychology of Creativity and the Pathology of Normality [PDF], by Steven James Bartlett, Visiting Scholar in Psychology, Willamette University and Senior Research Professor, Oregon State University.


Jamison, Kay Redfield (1993). Touched with fire: Manic-depressive illness and the artistic temperament.

Melville, Herman (1852/1995). Pierre: Or the ambiguities.

Stang, Ragna (1979). Edvard Munch: The man and his art


Related posts and articles :

I fought the medication because I liked my creativity – Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison

Creativity, the Arts, and Madness , By Maureen Neihart, Psy.D.

Mis-Diagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children [and adults]


[Addition by Douglas Eby:]

Donkey: Hey, what’s your problem, Shrek, what you got against the whole world anyway, huh?

Shrek: Look, I’m not the one with the problem, okay? It’s the world that seems to have a problem with me! People take one look at me and go “Aargh! Help! Run! A big stupid ugly ogre!” They judge me before they even know me – that’s why I’m better off alone.

Psychologist Michael Britt includes some excerpts like these from “Shrek” in his podcast DSM-V and On Being Sane – Are Psychiatric Labels Really Harmful?

Follow the link to hear this stimulating program. He writes :

What does the movie Shrek have to do with labeling, the DSM-V and the self-fulfilling prophecy? In this episode I take a close look at the well-known Rosenhan study. This was the study in which “pseudopatients” pretend to hear voices and on the basis of this they get admitted to psychiatric centers. Then they were told to act “normally”. It took an average of 19 days for these “pseudopatients” to be discharged from the hospital and even then they were diagnosed as “schizophrenia in remission”.

Britt asks, “Does this study show that psychiatric diagnoses are not only useless but also possibly harmful?”

creativity book, creativity and madness, mental illness and creativity, psychology of creativity

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