Many of history’s most celebrated creative geniuses were mentally ill, from renowned artists Vincent van Gogh and Frida Kahlo to literary giants Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allan Poe. Today, the fabled connection between genius and madness is no longer merely anecdotal. Mounting research shows these two extremes of the human mind really are linked — and scientists are beginning to understand why.
A panel of experts discussed recent and ongoing research on the subject at an event held Thursday (May 31) in New York as part of the 5th annual World Science Festival. All three panelists suffer from mental illnesses themselves.
Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said the findings of some 20 or 30 scientific studies endorse the notion of the “tortured genius.” Of the many varieties of psychosis, creativity appears to be most strongly linked to mood disorders, and especially bipolar disorder, which Jamison suffers from herself. For example, one study tested the intelligence of 700,000 Swedish 16-year-olds and then followed up a decade later to learn which of them had developed mental illnesses. The startling results were published in 2010. “They found that people who excelled when they were 16 years old were four times as likely to go on to develop bipolar disorder,” she said.
Bipolar disorder entails dramatic mood swings between extreme happiness (known as “mania”) and severe depression. How might this brutal cycle engender creativity? Research by another panelist, James Fallon, a neurobiologist at the University of California-Irvine, suggests an answer.
“People with bipolar tend to be creative when they’re coming out of deep depression,” Fallon said. When a bipolar patient’s mood improves, his brain activity shifts, too: activity dies down in the lower part of a brain region called the frontal lobe, and flares up in a higher part of that lobe. Amazingly, the very same shift happens when people have bouts of creativity. “There [is] this nexus between these circuits that have to do with bipolar and creativity,” Fallon said.
As for how the brain patterns translate into conscious thought, Elyn Saks, a mental health law professor at the University of Southern California, explained that people with psychosis don’t filter stimuli as well as other people. Instead, they’re able to entertain contradictory ideas simultaneously, and become aware of loose associations that most people’s unconscious brains wouldn’t consider worthy of sending to the surface of our consciousness. While the invasion of nonsense into conscious thought can be overwhelming and disruptive, “it can be quite creative, too,” said Saks, who developed schizophrenia as a young adult.
For example, word association studies, which ask participants to list all the words that come to mind in relation to a stimulus word (such as “tulip”), demonstrate that bipolar patients undergoing mild mania can generate three times as many word associations in a given time period as the general population. As for how this leads to strokes of genius, it could be that the sheer bounty of unsuppressed ideas means a greater probability of producing something profound.
Of course, no one is bursting with creative energy during a severe bout of depression or schizophrenia. Above all, these conditions are debilitating and even life-threatening, the scientists said, and although society benefits from the productivity of its tortured geniuses, those individuals don’t always consider their moments of brilliance to be worth the extensive suffering.
Saks put it this way: “I think the creativity is just one part of something that is mostly bad.”
Jazz Ison SInkfield, 48, from Atlanta, Georgia, hasn’t cut her finger nails in the last 22 years, in the hope that they might one day bring her the fame and glory she’s always been dreaming of.
Although she has difficulties performing the easiest of household chores, Jazz claims she feels “very, very blessed”. The nail-obsessed grandmother thinks she has a talent for growing and taking care of her long nails, because it’s not something anyone can do. I’m not very sure that’s true, considering she regularly visits the nail salon, for five-hour nail care sessions and spends over $500 every time; I’d say most other people choose not to spend their time and hard-earned money like that and avoid the complications that come with such “trophies”.
Mrs Sinkfield considers her long fingernails “a girl’s best friends” and can’t even conceive ever having to clip them. “I just can’t stop loving my kids, so how can I stop loving my nails?” she asks. Her longest fingernail is 24 inches long, and all of her painted “babies” add up to 19 feet. She’s very proud of what she’s accomplished and of the attention she draws whenever she goes out, but admits that not everyone is impressed. Some women will turn their nose up to her, but according to Jazz that’s only because they’re jealous. She feels everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but they don’t have to be mean about it.
According to her husband, Antonio, Jazz Sinkfield pays more attention to her precious fingernails than she does to him. Plus, she needs help with almost everything, because her nails make her very slow. Washing her hgands can take up to 10 minutes, texting and typing are a lot more difficult when you can’t use your fingers, and she can’t even tie her own shoes. She can’t even take off her jewelry, because she’s afraid she might damage her diamond fingernails, and all because she wants to be famous and meet celebrities the likes of Oprah Winfrey. Do you think that’s worth it?
The record for the World’s Longest Nails was previously held by Lee Redmond, who had a total of 28 feet of nails, before losing them in a car accident, in 2009. Now Jazz probably has a chance to gain even more notoriety for setting a world record.