The Creative Brain and Mental Illness

Virginia Woolf, Vincent Van Gogh, Diane Arbus, and Ernest Hemingway were all highly creative people who lost their battle with mental illness through suicide.

I've long been interested in the links between mental wellness or illness and creative capacity. So has Nancy Coover Andreasen, an American neuroscientist, inspired by a woman who mirrored her own personal, academic and professional life, Sylvia Plath.

As literature students and Fullbright scholars, the two had a lot in common but Plath joined the above list, while Andreasen has had what she calls a wonderful life.

And her curiosity about why life took them in different directions has shaped her career.

Two questions have framed her research:

  • Can the idea of nature vs nurture explain why some people suffer from mental illness?
  • Why is it that some of the most creative minds seem to be among the worst afflicted by mental illness?

This The Atlantic article outlines Andreasen’s very detailed research and some of her conclusions.

The article is concludes with a reference to the film A Beautiful Mind and its main character John Nash:

Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. And some people, like John Nash, are both.