Creativity, madness and drugs

Creativity, Madness and Drugs

By R. Douglas Fields | November 22, 2013 |

San Diego—Would we have Poe’s Raven today if the tormented author had taken lithium to suppress his bipolar illness? Not likely, considering the high frequency of psychiatric illnesses among writers and artists, concluded psychiatrist Kay Jamison of Johns Hopkins Medical School speaking last week at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego. Madness electrifies the creative process, Jamison concluded, but this difficult drug-use dilemma raises an even more provocative question: Would we have Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds had the Beatles not taken LSD? Beetles

Lord Tennyson, Virginia Woolf and Vincent Van Gogh are familiar examples of artists and writers who suffered serious mental illnesses, but Jamison explained that psychiatric illness was the cruel engine of their creativity. Tracing their family pedigrees, she showed that many of these artists’ siblings, parents and descendants were institutionalized in mental hospitals, committed suicide, or endured life-long struggles with mania, despair, schizophrenia or other mental disorders. The genetic backbone to mental illness is strong. Ernest Hemingway and his supermodel granddaughter Margaux Hemingway both killed themselves. Separated from one another in environment and experience by a generation, their fates were inevitably tethered by their DNA. In all, seven members of the Hemingway family died at their own hand. This raises the question of why the genes of such devastating brain dysfunctions should persist in the human gene pool. Ernest Hemingway Photo

Statistics show that among all categories of creative artists, writers suffer by far the highest incidence of bipolar disorder, outstripping all other artistic professions. Why? Jamison concludes that the manic phase of bipolar disorder infuses the writer with furious energy and limitless stamina. The author foregoes sleep, is driven to take daring risks, expands their imagination and embraces grandiose thinking.

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