Every year a new scientific study emerges alleging a link between creativity and mental illness. People just love to hear about this – particularly artists, who circulate the articles on social media with a strange pride. Everyone likes to hear that their eccentricities and their addictions are simply evidence of their sensitive artistic nature.
This week everyone was madly praising an article in the recent issue of Scientific American, titled “The Unleashed Mind: Why creative people are eccentric,” by Shelley Carson (subtitle: “Highly creative people often seem weirder than the rest of us. Now researchers know why”). Simultaneously, every writer I know is circulating a review of a new book of literary biography called The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink, by Olivia Laing.
The titles of these things alone are enough to cause ripples of praise and mutual self-satisfaction. Laing’s book describes six famous drunken writers and their eloquent paeans to drink, but doesn’t come up with a clear-cut answer to its own question. It seems that writers drink for the same reasons everyone else drinks: because they’re nervous.
The Scientific American article is similarly dissatisfying. It uses the trendy language of brain science to claim that “creative” people have more “cognitive disinhibition” than most people; that is, that their brains are less adept at filtering out extraneous details. This is a trait shared by people with schizotypal disorders (disorders like but not as severe as schizophrenia). If the sufferer is of high intelligence, this mess of perceptions can lead to great insights.
This seems reasonable: the ability to focus on the odd detail in the midst of an agitated scene is the hallmark of the novelist.
And previous studies seem to confirm a link between creativity and madness: Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute found last year that writers had a higher risk of anxiety, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression and substance abuse, and that they were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves. (This was reported in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.) The researchers were also quick to point out that certain traits of the disturbed – such as disordered thoughts – are beneficial to artists. They did not address the chicken-egg question of what comes first, the nutsiness or a life spent in unstructured, self-employed, unremunerated, competitive and critical professions.
Actually, several studies have duplicated these statistics. The funny thing is, after having spent a life among artists, I don’t subjectively recognize them to be true. I don’t see my artist friends as any more neurotic or addiction-prone than the others. The roommates I have had who were into triathlons or environmentalism were just as crazy as the poets, just as prone to tears over gardening or air conditioners, just as ready to kite a cheque or binge on cookie dough.
And as far as the drunken night-owl writers go, well, I have to tell you something embarrassing: I have spent a great deal of time among Canadian novelists and can assure you that they are by and large the squarest people I know. They eat a lot of kale and quinoa and get to bed early because they have to teach classes first thing. They spend a lot of time canoeing and listening to melancholy folk music. As a group, they don’t drink to excess and they are afraid to the point of paranoia of recreational drugs.
In my experience, people in the hospitality industry drink a whole lot more than the writers I know do. And the thousands of bars of the financial district of my city are filled, every evening at six o’clock, with the bellowing, tie-loosened products of commerce, not art.
Maybe conservative artists are just a Canadian phenomenon. But there’s a larger issue here in all this praise of the weird. These studies reflect a great societal desire for artists to be different – to be Different – not just workers producing a necessary part of existence like bakers or plumbers. But art is not actually weird. It is just a job.
Furthermore, the study reported in Scientific American makes a curiously circular argument about creativity. Its list of “eccentricities” includes Bjork wearing a swan dress to an awards ceremony. But that is actually an example of creativity. See the problem? If you define eccentricity as creativity, then yes, creativity is eccentricity.
“How could weird thoughts and behaviours enhance a person’s ability to think creatively?” asks Shelley Carson. Wait – what’s the difference? This is a textbook petitio principii, or begging the question: creativity has already been defined by the scientists as thinking in an unusual way.
Then the authors drop a little footnote, a kind of by the way: “Most people suffering from psychosis or schizophrenia do not produce ideas that are considered creative, however.” That strikes me as rather significant. So artists are not actually mad, just, well artistic. Not the most powerful conclusion, in the end.
Look, there is actually no such thing as an Artist type. Artist is just an economic designation, a box you tick on a form. We are all people and we are all creative.
In the end, the only thing that drives writers to drink is taxis.
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