Where does creativity come from? It’s a question which has haunted many great philosophical minds for centuries, and one which has never – to our knowledge – been successfully answered. Some would claim that artistry and imagination are the result of a stimulating childhood environment. Others would point to trauma, or divine intervention. Some would claim that creativity is as much of a curse as it is blessing (pointing out the fact that for generations, artists and musicians would often die penniless and alone), and perhaps even best not encouraged at all.
That there is a strong connection between mental illness and creativity is something which is well understood. You don’t have to look far to find a long list of artists, poets, authors, musicians and other creative people – many of whom have achieved enormous success in their careers – who have suffered from bleak periods of debilitating depression and anxiety. Indeed, many of our most celebrated creatives had their lives cut short by suicide or self-annihilation as a result of such mental illnesses… and it wouldn’t be such a leap to claim that their creative powers were the result of their issues, rather than the other way around. Aristotle himself said “no great genius ever existed without a strain of madness”, and while we wouldn’t claim Virginia Woolf, Vincent Van Gogh, Kurt Cobain or David Foster Wallace as ‘mad’, the point Aristotle was making is well understood even two thousand years after his own demise.
We thought we’d take a close look at five other diseases and disorders thought to be linked to artistry and creativeness, and consider if – and how – they have led to works of genius and beauty.
1) Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder
Both of these mental disorders can be utterly debilitating and appallingly frightening for those who suffer from them. Intense mood swings, acute sensitivity to emotional changes, and powerful delusions and paranoia are all associated with these interconnected mental illnesses. However, it has been noted that the same sensitivities that make them so painful to deal with also result in the individual being able to perceive, and process, their feelings in ways which others would perhaps struggle to achieve. When the sufferer is somebody who is already artistically inclined, or wishes to face their demons with a musical instrument, a pen, or a paintbrush etc, the results can be spectacular.
Pink Floyd first album “Saucerful of Secrets” (1968) cover
Perhaps the most famous creative schizophrenic of the 20th century was the elusive visionary, Syd Barrett. Along with his Pink Floyd bandmates, Syd rewrote the rules of rock music, and created some of the most fascinating insights into the depths of the human psyche via those early, psychedelic records which proved so influential. Also in the list of famous creative schizophrenics would be Zelda Fitzgerald – surely one of the greatest American authors, whose sense of social awareness and ability to evoke specific atmospheres was second-to-none, and Jack Kerouac – everyone’s favourite Beat writer. It also seems that Vincent Van Gogh – arguably the greatest painter ever to have lived – was also a sufferer, and that his delusions and alternative view on the world certainly seemed to have led to his extraordinary visions of colour and form, which he captured in oil on canvas.
The list of poets, actors, artists and musicians with Bipolar disorder is incredibly long, and it might even be fair to say that this disorder can have a remarkable effect on the artistically-inclined, leading them to fully express their powerful emotions to those around them. Lord Byron and Virginia Woolf were probably the most famous writers of their time, and they were both known to be sufferers. The musicians DMX, Demi Lovato, Chris Cornell, Sinead O’Connor and more besides are also diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, and it’s one of the most common mental illnesses across the board in showbusiness.
From left to right: DMX, Virginia Woolf, Jack Kerouac (Famous persons who suffered from psychiatric diseases)
If you look back through the history books, it sometimes seems that almost every great writer, musician and poet was affected by syphilis. This sexually transmitted disease tore its way through the artistic class in the 18th and 19th centuries, and while in its early stages is famously almost symptomless (particularly in men), it eventually leads to paralysis, madness, and death.
In the circles of the artistic community and creative intelligentsia, neurosyphilis (clinical form of syphilis characterized by CNS damage) was of particular importance. It was believed that patients with this form of syphilis had some extraordinary creative abilities. Many artist, writers of those times drew inspiration from hallucinations and onyroid visions, perceiving this as a kind of “gift”, not realizing that this would be followed by an imminent and painful death. One of the manifestations of neurosyphilis is neurosyphilis ataxia (imbalance and unsteadiness). Patients with this disorder could not move normally without auxiliary items, such as a stick. It’s a well-known fact that man with a stick was believed to be an intelligent, from the high strata of society.
Richard Tennant Cooper’s painting Syphilis, we can see that the disease (which is represented as an evil-looking supernatural creature) has been brought to the man by the naked woman in the room. In this way we can see that judgmental and harmful attitudes regarding women’s sexuality have been connected to syphilis and its depictions for a very long time.
If you want to read for yourself the deteriorating effect that syphilis has on the creative mind, then look no further than the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake. The first two books are kaleidoscopically wonderful and involving, but the third – once the disease had fully begun to manifest – is a work of deeply strange and disjointed fiction.
Other famous syphilis sufferers included: Oscar Wilde, Paul Gaugin, Charles Baudelaire, Eduard Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec. Basically anyone who seems to have spent time in Paris in the late 19th century.
3) Idiopathic Epilepsy
Unpredictable, frightening and typified by violent and sudden fits and seizures, epilepsy is a strange disorder which can seemingly come from nowhere. However, sufferers of epilepsy (and increasingly, the medical community) have long since claimed that the disease is conductive to bursts of amazing creativity and artistry.
Epileptics often claim that seizures lead to the arising of strange and wonderful ideas, a complete shake-up of the mind, and bizarre-yet-fascinating combinations of words – a sort of free-form poetry running through one’s head. This side effect of epileptic fits has even led some sufferers to be hesitant when it comes to taking epilepsy medication, out of fear the pills will not only stop the seizures, but also stop this burst of creative energy, too. Famous epileptics include Prince, Lewis Carroll, Neil Young, Fedor Dostoevsky, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens and many, many more besides.
4) Agraphia and Aphasia
Agraphia and Aphasia are connected neurological disorders, which seem to affect the way sufferers respond primarily to written language. Causing enormous difficulties in writing, reading, and responding to the written word, one might imagine these disorders would be an enormous impairment to creativity. However, this seems not to be the case. It is believed that Agraphia is not the reason for writing talent, but the consequence of enormous writing activity. It is common connected to the doctors and medical students who need to write lots of academic papers during their study.
You might imagine these disorders would make acting incredibly difficult, but it clearly did no harm to the careers of Sharon Stone, Kirk Douglas and Marlon Brando. Several musicians also confirmed that they are sufferers of Agraphia and Aphasia, including Glen Campbell and Randy Travis.
5) Lupus Erythematosus
Lupus Erythematosus is an autoimmune disease, which causes the body to confuse healthy tissue with that which needs to be attacked and destroyed by own immune cells. It causes extreme exhaustion, stiffness of the joints, and irritating rashes that can cover the whole body. There hasn’t been a whole lot of research into connections between lupus and creativity, but there have certainly been plenty of impressive creatives who have suffered from this incurable disease.
Michael Jackson, Selena Gomez, Lady Gaga, Seal, Toni Braxton and Trick Daddy are all famous musicians who suffer or suffered from Lupus – could their disease be part of the inspiration for their spirit and talent?
As we’ve seen, countless creative and artistic people have seemingly always been either sufferers of, or susceptible to, a whole range of diseases and maladies. Whether the condition causes their creativity, inspires their artistry, or is the result of their creative power is open to interpretation… but there’s no doubt that we owe all of these people a huge debt of gratitude for sharing their gifts to the world, in spite of the demons they struggled with.
Jilian Woods is passionate freelance writer, and journalist (NYU journalist degree in 2017).