"Thinking About It Again, And Again, And Again": How Rumination May Link Art And Mental Illness

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Here's some news that may leave you emotionally conflicted and intellectually uncertain: several studies have found a link between creativity and bipolar disorder. According to CNN, a study by Stanford psychologist Terrence Ketter showed bipolar patients scoring up to 50 percent higher on "creativity tests" than a mentally healthy control group. Explanations for this link abound — some say creative people are hypersensitive to their surroundings, leading them to worry more, while others think the sheer stress of working in the arts causes mental problems. The most interesting explanation, however, has to do with reflection and rumination.Psychologist and novelist Paul Verhaeghen describes himself as "somewhat mood disordered," and says, "one of the things I do is think about something over and over and over again, and that's when I start writing." However, "if you think about stuff in your life and you start thinking about it again, and again, and again, and you kind of spiral away in this continuous rumination about what's happening to you and to the world — people who do that are at risk for depression." Obsessive rumination and reflection can lead to insightful and surprising works of art; Verhaeghen mentions David Foster Wallace, whose "breathless" sentences "need to be annotated, and the annotations need to be annotated again." However, these same mental habits can get the brain stuck in painful patterns, as David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide on September 12, no doubt knew. The idea that creativity and mental illness are connected is an old one, and one that has done a lot of damage. Miserable people have created some beautiful things, but the belief that misery is necessary for art, or the price one pays for the gift of artistic genius, may discourage artists from getting treatment. It also reinforces the notion some depressed people have that their worldview is the correct one, and that happy people just aren't paying enough attention. And it encourages people like Eric Wilson, author of Against Happiness, to wish for just a little bit of depression — enough to write good books, but not enough to commit suicide. Like people who misguidedly wish for a little anorexia to trim those extra 20 pounds, boosters of mild artistic depression forget that mental illness isn't like gas for your brain — you don't just get to pump in how much you want. However, acknowledging that bipolar disorder can be linked to creativity could have an upside. It's popular today to view mental problems as diseases, like diabetes, that afflict people with no connection to their personalities. But mental illness is more complicated than that. It's often difficult to separate one mental illness from another, and to separate the symptoms of mental illness from the traits of character. If we viewed people holistically, we might be better able to help them live happily and healthily, without giving up what makes them unique. Experts ponder link between creativity, mood disorders [CNN]


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An awesome book not so tangentially related to this topic is Against Depression by Peter Kramer.