The Science of Creativity and Depression
Through the ages, creativity has been linked to “madness”. Troubled geniuses like Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway have only enhanced the mystique of the “artistic temperament”. Anecdotally, poets, writers and artists show strong depressive and sometimes manic tendencies. Poets in particular show high rates of suicide.
Scientific evidence linking creativity and mental illness is not clear, however. The dubious role of so-called Big Pharma in apparently “creating” a condition for which their products offer the obvious treatment is coming under increasing scrutiny (r
The lack of unambiguous, peer-reviewed evidence, does not change the subjective experience of depression, which can feel like intense grief for no apparent reason. But there’s interesting research both directly and indirectly related to depression which is casting new light on this most vexing of health conditions.
While we’re not talking about depression, strictly speaking, there is evidence of similarities between the brains of very creative people and those suffering from schizophrenia. Associate Professor Fredrik Ullen of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute scanned the brains of various test subjects and found that, like people suffering from schizophrenia, highly creative people who did well on tests of divergent thought had a lower than expected density of D2 receptors in the thalamus. “Fewer D2 receptors in the thalamus probably means a lower degree of signal filtering, and thus a higher flow of information from the thalamus,” said Professor Ullen.
Then there’s the orchid-dandelion hypothesis, which goes to the core of the nature vs nurture debate. This postulates that a specific gene determines how sensitive a child will be to influences growing up. Danelions turn out fine regardless of the influences they’re subjected to; orchids are much more sensitive creatures who – at its most simplistic – can turn out to be geniuses or homicidal maniacs depending on their upbringing.
Recent studies suggest that – surprise, surprise – depressed people are terrible at distinguishing between negative emotions (deciding whether what you’re feeling is guilt or anger is helpful), maternal depression affects language development in babies and that depression may contribute to inflammation linked to diabetes, high blood pressure and coronary artery disease.
One interesting theory is that the genes for depression are linked to genes for immunity. Even though depression can impact our relationships with others and our ability to be productive members of society, it happens to be linked to genetic variations that also promote immunity – so your ancestors might have been sad, but they were also better at recovering from infected jackal bites.
What actually causes depression is still an answer that largely eludes us. The serotonin hypothesis, which dates from the 1960s and effectively created the multibillion dollar SSRI drug business, is now being questioned, but as yet we lack an equally compelling replacement.
Regardless of the biological mechanisms by which sufferers experience depression, those sensations are real, they’re a source of anguish and despair, and they can be life threatening. Leonard Cohen expresses it well: “When I speak of depression,” he has said, “I speak of a clinical depression that is the background of your entire life, a background of anguish and anxiety, a sense that nothing goes well, that pleasure is unavailable and all your strategies collapse.”
Just because the science is unclear doesn’t mean the feelings aren’t – or that the quest for treatment options that are effective and sustainable are futile.