Vincent Van Gogh’s genius is undeniable now. His paintings are revered around the world and sell for multi-million dollars. His brushstrokes, thick and globular, severed tradition and gave rise to a new, unique sect of art. Moreover, his paintings broke convention. They showed the emotional depth of humanity through rich texture, raucous colors, and depictions of labor. Yet, one may say Van Gogh’s prolific work came at the cost of his sanity. For much of his most productive working years which overlapped with his time in Provence, his health deteriorated. He often experienced hallucinations, episodes of mania, and a dangerous blend of depression and paranoia. When absorbed in his work, he could be in isolation for weeks, even months at a time, barely interacting with neighbors. On the occasion, he did venture in town it was mostly to look for more alcohol. Rarely sober, Van Gogh became a burden on the people of Provence, his only confidante being his family, particularly Theo, his brother, and his brother’s wife, Joan. Theo took immense sympathy on his brother who seemed always plagued with emotional turmoil and believed in his work but found his pieces hard to sell.
Van Gogh’s mood disorder, which today, could be categorized as bipolar, is one not uncommon in artists. Many artists whether it be writers, musicians, actors, struggle with a type of mood disorder. Examples include Virginia Wolfe, Sylvia Plath, Beethoven, and Georgia O’Keeffe. These names represent only a small handful which makes me wonder if there is a link between creativity and mental disorder? And if so, what is it? Is there a neuroscientific correlation between creativity and mood disorders?
Before identifying a specific creative link, it is important to define creativity and distinguish what brain regions are responsible for creativity. Creativity is an ability to view problems or generate possibilities in a novel and unique way (Glück et at., 2002). This ability has been linked to personality traits such as flexibility and divergent thinking (Caroli et at., 2009). In recent years, several studies have further tried to understand the link between bipolar disorder and creativity and have generated several interesting insights. Burkhardt et at., 2018 had 38 participants partake in several formalized diagnostic testing as well as interviews to determine whether individuals were bipolar. Subsequently, they took creativity assessments which included the Barron-Welsh Art Scale (BWAS) and the Creative Achievement Questionnaire (CAQ). Results showed that those who tested for bipolar (no distinction was made in this paper between type I and II) had significantly higher scores on the creativity tests. Interestingly, the study notes that an increased creative capacity does not equate to higher creative achievement (Burkhardt et at., 2018).
Another study focused on the structural correlation between creativity and bipolar disorder (Tu et at.,2017). Here, they separated their 59 participants into bipolar 1 and bipolar 2, all of which went through fMRI scanning. Under the fMRI, participants completed two traditional creative tests: The Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults and the Chinese Word Remote Associates Test. These tests challenge the participant to make as many unique associations with a word and/or uses for an object. For example, a component of the Torrance Test could ask list all the uses of a paperclip you can in five minutes. The quantity and quality of nontraditional answers determines one’s creativity score.
Results of this study showed that divergent thinking in people with bipolar I and II was linked to gray matter volume in the right medial frontal gyrus. It is crucial to acknowledge that patients in this study were taking a variety of medication: mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and antidepressants-all of which could have tampered with the result. Nonetheless, the results are important in indicating the significant role the medial prefrontal cortex plays in creative thinking in people with bipolar as opposed to the more distributed neuroanatomical pattern for creative people without bipolar disorder (Tu et al.,2017).
While more extensive research needs to be conducted to understand the extent and depth of creativity’s correlation with bipolar disease, these two studies highlight a definite link between them. Given this knowledge, how does one go about treatment? The implications of treatment, such as potentially stunting creativity, may affect whether an artist decides to accept it. These insights will most importantly lead to more ethical debates and a greater understanding of neuroanatomical overlaps, especially in regards to mood, emotions, and capabilities. Perhaps, the creatives of the future will not have to suffer to Van Gogh’s magnitude.
Burkhardt, Eva & Pfennig, Andrea & Breitling, Gwendolin & Pfeiffer, Steffi & Sauer, Cathrin & Bechdolf, Andreas & U. Correll, Christoph & Bauer, Michael & Leopold, Karolina. (2018). Creativity in persons at-risk for bipolar disorder-A pilot study. Early Intervention in Psychiatry. 10.
De Caroli, Maria & Sagone, Elisabetta. (2009). Creative thinking and Big Five factors of personality measured in Italian school children. Psychological reports. 105.
Glück, Judith & Polacsek-Ernst, Roland & Unger, Floortje. (2002). How Creatives Define Creativity: Definitions Reflect Different Types of Creativity. Creativity Research Journal, v.14, 55-67 (2002). 14.
Tu, Pei-Chi & Kuan, Yi-Hsuan & Li, Cheng-Ta & Su, Tung-Ping. (2017). Structural Correlates of Creative Thinking in Patients With Bipolar Disorder and Healthy Controls—a Voxel-Based Morphometry Study. Journal of Affective Disorders. 215.