from The Atlantic
Secrets of the Creative Brain
A leading neuroscientist who has spent decades studying creativity shares her research on where genius comes from, whether it is dependent on high IQ—and why it is so often accompanied by mental illness.
by Nancy Andreasen
As a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who studies creativity, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many gifted and high-profile subjects over the years, but Kurt Vonnegut—dear, funny, eccentric, lovable, tormented Kurt Vonnegut—will always be one of my favorites. Kurt was a faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s, and participated in the first big study I did as a member of the university’s psychiatry department. I was examining the anecdotal link between creativity and mental illness, and Kurt was an excellent case study.
He was intermittently depressed, but that was only the beginning. His mother had suffered from depression and committed suicide on Mother’s Day, when Kurt was 21 and home on military leave during World War II. His son, Mark, was originally diagnosed with schizophrenia but may actually have bipolar disorder. (Mark, who is a practicing physician, recounts his experiences in two books, The Eden Express and Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, in which he reveals that many family members struggled with psychiatric problems. “My mother, my cousins, and my sisters weren’t doing so great,” he writes. “We had eating disorders, co-dependency, outstanding warrants, drug and alcohol problems, dating and employment problems, and other ‘issues.’ ”)
While mental illness clearly runs in the Vonnegut family, so, I found, does creativity. Kurt’s father was a gifted architect, and his older brother Bernard was a talented physical chemist and inventor who possessed 28 patents. Mark is a writer, and both of Kurt’s daughters are visual artists. Kurt’s work, of course, needs no introduction.
For many of my subjects from that first study—all writers associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—mental illness and creativity went hand in hand. This link is not surprising. The archetype of the mad genius dates back to at least classical times, when Aristotle noted, “Those who have been eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.” This pattern is a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s plays, such as when Theseus, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, observes, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact.” John Dryden made a similar point in a heroic couplet: “Great wits are sure to madness near allied, / And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”
Compared with many of history’s creative luminaries, Vonnegut, who died of natural causes, got off relatively easy. Among those who ended up losing their battles with mental illness through suicide are Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, John Berryman, Hart Crane, Mark Rothko, Diane Arbus, Anne Sexton, and Arshile Gorky.
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