On Creativity and Madness

Is there any truth to the idea that creativity and mental illness may be interlinked? Richard Holman examines the question here, looking at examples from art and literary history as well as science to shed light on the matter

Creativity and madness: that the two go hand in hand has become a cliché. Along with eccentricity, substance abuse, and a hapless attitude to personal finance, mental illness is one of the tropes we associate with the artistic mind.

What is the truth? Is there really a higher incidence of mental illness among creative people, or is this just an easy fallacy to explain the behaviour of those who see the world differently? And if there is a genuine correlation between creativity and madness, could exploring the relationship between the two help us better understand them both?

One doesn’t have to delve very deep into the lives of some of our most revered writers, musicians and artists to uncover countless anecdotal accounts of the experience of mental illness and its effect on the creative process. Walter Isaacson in his brilliant recent biography of Da Vinci writes of the young Leonardo, “had he been a student at the outset of the 21st century, he may have been put on a pharmaceutical regimen to alleviate his mood swings and attention deficit disorder”.