As long as there have been poets, painters and artists of all persuasions, there have been social critics to notice that a lot of these creative people are mentally unsound.
"Why is it," Aristotle asked in the fourth century B.C., "that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry or the arts are melancholic?" Three hundred years ago, the English poet John Dryden wrote:
Great wits are sure to madness near allied;
And thin partitions do their bounds divide.
That couplet that has since degenerated into the sorry cliche: "There is a thin line between genius and madness."
Yet as with any cliche, this one has a sizable grain of truth in it. After many decades of quarreling over how to define such slippery and often subjective terms as "madness" and "creativity," along with a general resistance among scientists to any idea that has gripped the popular imagination for so long, psychiatrists, neurologists and evolutionary geneticists at last have accrued powerful evidence that the link between certain mental disorders and artistic achievement is real. Study after study has shown that people in the arts suffer disproportionately high rates of mood disorders, particularly manic depression and major depression.
Those with manic depression, or bipolar disorder, oscillate between summit and abyss -- between a sense of grandeur and recklessness, a boundless, knockabout energy that feasts on itself and disdains the need for sleep; and a profound depression in which anguish, lethargy and self-hatred dominate. Many of the most eminent creators seem to have had full-blown manic depression, others have had milder forms of the disorder and still others have suffered repeated episodes of major depression, the same bleakness seen in the down-swing of manic depression but without its euphoric counterpart.
As Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison points out in her recent book, "Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament" (Free Press), the list of artists in whom manic depression or severe depression has been diagnosed with confidence is a pantheon of glory: Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Herman Melville, Robert Schumann, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke.
"Most of the best studies in this area have only been done in the last few years," said Dr. Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "People think this whole area of research is very squishy, very puffy and unsubstantiated. They don't realize how solid and consistent the work really is." Psychiatrists have found that among distinguished artists, the rates of manic depression and major depression are 10 to 30 times as prevalent as in the population at large.
Importantly, the periods of either mania or depression are interrupted by long stretches of normality in which the artists appear in command of their work.
"People have a problem with the idea that someone can be both very healthy and very ill," said Dr. Jamison. "But those with manic depression can be very scarred and extremely confident at the same time. And it takes that hyperconfidence when you're breaking down borders in art. . . ." Although creativity is obviously an essential element in many professions, the link between creativity and mental instability is more pronounced in the arts. Dr. Arnold M. Ludwig, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington and author of a new book, "The Price of Greatness" (Guilford Press), looked at the incidence of psychiatric illness among 1,004 eminent men and women.
Considering individuals in eight creative-arts professions and 10 other professions, of the stature of Aldous Huxley, Alexander Graham Bell, Albert Einstein and Henri Matisse, Dr. Ludwig discovered that psychiatric disturbances were far more common among the artists than among the others. For example, the rate of alcoholism was 60 percent among actors and 41 percent among novelists, but only 3 percent among those in the physical sciences and 10 percent among military officers. In the case of manic depression, 17 percent of the actors and 13 percent of the poets were thought to have had the disorder, while those in the sciences were believed to have suffered from it at a rate of less than 1 percent, comparable to the incidence in the general population.