Madness and the Muse: The Secrets of the Creative Brain, by Tom Bartlett

We’re captivated by the idea of the troubled genius. But is it a fiction?

When Andreasen began her research into creativity and mental illness, she assumed she’d prove there’s a relationship between creativity and schizophrenia such as in John Nash, the brilliant mathematician and game-theory pioneer whose battle with schizophrenia was the basis for the movie A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001).

by Tom Bartlett • The Chronicle of Higher Education

Illustration of Beethoven, Virginia Woolf, and Kurt Cobain by Meen Choi for The Chronicle Review
Illustration of Beethoven, Virginia Woolf, and Kurt Cobain by Meen Choi for The Chronicle Review

Nancy Andreasen is not a smooth performer-of-ideas in the TED vein, the sort who roams the stage wirelessly mic’d, dispensing wisdom with Broadway-caliber aplomb. She does it old school, podium and PowerPoint, describing her research as she clicks through slides. The 400 or so people gathered for a midafternoon session of this summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival were drawn by the promise of learning “The Secrets of the Creative Brain” from Andreasen, a literary scholar turned psychiatrist and neuroscientist, winner of the National Science Medal, and author of a landmark study that found that eight out of 10 writers had experienced some form of mental illness during their lives. When the study was published in 1987, it was taken as scientific confirmation that there is indeed a link between creativity and mental illness, that most of our geniuses are fragile, moody, and perhaps a bit mad.

Her presentation concluded with a flourish as photographs of famous and famously troubled artists like Hemingway, Beethoven, and Kurt Cobain flashed on the screen to the strains of Don McLean’s “Vincent,” as in van Gogh, the ear-carving archetype of suffering for your art. McLean’s most memorable line could serve as a kind of musical epigraph for Andreasen’s research: “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”

The song ended. Applause.

I sat in the very back row of the crowded room, squinting at the screen and scribbling notes. Afterward I ran into a couple of creativity researchers, Keith Sawyer and Scott Barry Kaufman, and asked them, casually, what they thought of Andreasen’s talk. While I can’t swear they rolled their eyes simultaneously, I can’t swear they didn’t.

Continue reading