We are all familiar with the stereotype of the moody teenage artist. She wears all black, feels tremendous amounts of angst, and, while very bright, struggles to find joy in a world full of tragedies. While many creative people find this stereotype to be offensive, there is growing scientific evidence that it may, in fact, have some merit. Modern research suggests that highly creative minds are at an increased risk for depression due to their insightful and highly empathetic worldview.
Nancy Andreasen, author of The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius, believes that creative minds are less likely to easily adapt when confronted with new situations. This is because they are more skeptical of the information given to them by authority figures. They would rather make up their own minds. This is not only much more difficult to do, but much more time-intensive when trying to adjust to a new environment. They are creating their own ideas rather than blindly adopting the ones put forth by society.
“This flexibility,” observes Andreasen, “permits them to perceive things in a fresh and novel way, which is an important basis for creativity. But it also means that their inner world is complex, ambiguous, and filled with shades of gray rather than black and white. It is a world filled with many questions and few easy answers. While less creative people quickly respond to situations based on what they have been told by people in authority — parents, teachers, pastors, rabbis, or priests — the creative person lives in a more fluid and nebulous world.”
This mindset, while very valuable, can unfortunately lead to feelings of isolation and alienation from the deep thinker’s peer group – thus, the archetype of the artsy loner. This often creates a crushing sense of stress and depression. Oddly enough, this can actually provoke more creativity.
“The sun began to set – suddenly the sky turned blood red,” wrote Edvard Munch of his experience painting The Scream, which became one of the most famous works of art of all time. “I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an endless scream passing through nature.” As he later wrote in his diary, “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”
Interestingly, the reason for The Scream’s success is that this feeling of angst and alienation is somewhat universal – especially in the artistic community. Many creative geniuses, across a diverse array of fields, have felt it. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Vincent Van Gogh have all famously struggled with mental illness. In fact, in examining creative history, it is much more difficult to find an emotionally well-adjusted artist than one who struggles with his or her mental state. As Aristotle once said, “No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.”