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Genius or Madness? The Connection between Psychosis and Creativity

Posted Aug 26 2008 1:09pm

Part Three – To Treat or Not To Treat

We’ve already seen how psychosis can often be a positive experience for some people, and can contribute to creativity in various ways. We’ve also seen the enormous sense of loss that one feels when it has gone. Bearing this in mind, is it necessary to treat it?

For Mr Man it seems that it was; those friendly voices had long been replaced by the threats and demands of the unfriendly, which is what led to the discovery of his illness. Instead of telling him the next best possible move in a Chess game, or the solution to a programming dilemma, they would tell him he was stupid and worthless. Instead of helping him to be creative, he believed they were stealing his ideas. The voices demanded he continued to “work” for them, or they would kill his wife. Mr Man became more and more paranoid, depressed, and suicidal, and his illness became unmanageable.

So why is psychosis a pleasant experience for some, and an unpleasant experience for others? Why does that pleasant experience sometimes change, as it did for Mr Man?

I have no idea if there is currently any research into this area, but in my opinion there should be. It would seem that some people are predisposed to certain mental illnesses. This could be for a variety of reasons, including genetics or problems during pregnancy which effect the development of the brain. However, some people will not develop mental illness until a second trigger comes into play. That second trigger could be stress, trauma, or drugs.*

My theory is that some people who are predisposed to mental illness will go on to develop a “happy” kind of psychosis, but those who do not develop psychosis until a second trigger comes into play will develop a more “depressive” kind of psychosis. For those people who previously experienced “happy” psychosis; stress, trauma, or drugs could also cause them to develop a more “depressive” psychosis later on. Of course this is only a theory, and like all theories, needs adequate research to prove or disprove its accuracy.

“Taunting voices they are, never kind any more. When did that change?” - Catherine

Mr Man experienced “happy” psychosis since his teens, and thus was able to keep it to himself for over 10 years. In his late twenties he experienced the physical stress of suffering from Epstein Barr, and the emotional stress of trying to hold down a job while he was suffering from this virus, as well as extra burdens placed on him by his manager. It would seem that it was at this time that the nature of his psychosis changed and the voices became more threatening.

Hearing voices is often a traumatic experience for the sufferer

"The Words of my Voices" by Philippa King

There is evidence** to suggest that the longer psychosis is left untreated, the harder it is to treat. Bearing this in mind, and also the changeable nature of psychosis, should all those who experience psychosis be treated, even if it is a positive experience for them? I really feel that this is a moral question which I have no answer to.


Earlier this year I received the following comment by Doctor Goober Modesty:

“There is a fine line between genius and psychosis. It is never spoken about in a clinical setting, seems like only on the Internet. From my view point, the Mental Health System does not know how to handle the genius in us persons with Schizophrenia. Here in Canada, namely Montreal, the Hospital started to invest in my genius slant through the arts... times do slowly change for the better!” – Doctor Goober Modesty
I have to agree that mental health staff often do not know how to handle genius. I suspect part of the problem is their inability to recognise it due to their own limitations, but if what is produced is linked to the psychosis then they may wonder if it is a good thing to encourage it.

Mr Man was often treated with little or no respect whilst on the ward, and yet he was undoubtedly more intelligent than the staff treating him that way. If they had looked into his little note book that he carried around with him, they would have seen a long list of zero’s and one’s and no doubt would have concluded that it was part of his “madness”, and yet a math professor would have instantly recognised that he was forming a code with the use of binary.

On the other hand, even if they had recognised the complexity of the code and understood the mathematical side of it, would it be right for them to encourage Mr Man to develop it, knowing that he was writing a code so that we could communicate without the “company” understanding us? Surely that would reinforce his delusional thoughts? Yet, isn’t art therapy encouraged in psychiatric hospitals? Isn’t that also reinforcing delusional thoughts for those who feel that they are “instructed” to paint or draw through psychosis?

It seems that the topic of creativity and psychosis is a complicated one with many more questions than answers.

Finally we arrive back at the original question: Genius or Madness?

You decide.

Special thanks to Seaneen , Doctor Goober Modesty , Philippa King , and Catherine

The mental health charity, MIND, is celebrating 60 years with the “Art - Making a Difference” or M.A.D Art Installation. It is a collection of work by mental health users and survivors and will be open to the public from Saturday 1st - Sunday 9th September 2007 at Draywalk Gallery, Truman Brewery, Draywalk off Brick Lane, London, from 11.30am - 7.30pm. Entry is free, and the nearest tube station is Liverpool Street. Click here for more information.

The “Frame of Mind” Art Exhibition will be displaying artwork of people managing a serious mental illness or brain disorder. It will be held on Monday 22nd October - Sunday 4th November 2007 at Wycombe Swan, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.

Philippa King will have pieces of art on display at both of these exhibitions.

* The Causes of Schizophrenia

**Wyatt RJ. Neuroleptics and the natural course of Schizophrenia. Schizophr Bull 1991; 17:325-351.
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