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is a postdoctoral research associate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
Is creativity inherently related to mood disorders? It’s a common belief today that there exists some intimate relationship between the two. Consider common paragons of creativity: Vincent van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, Anne Sexton (and countless others), all reaching new creative heights while struggling with a terrible mental disorder of some kind. This idea of a connection between the two stems from the Romantic Era, when mental disorder was thought to be a sign of creativity – an idea that remains remarkably tenacious today. But is there any scientific reason to believe in a connection? Trying to answer this question illustrates how difficult it is to address knotty, multi-layered problems like this with research. It is not as straightforward as just seeing if ‘creativity’ is correlated with ‘mood disorder’. We’ve got to dig deeper.
The relationship is deeply enmeshed in the public mind for a couple of reasons. For many, the idea of the ‘creative person’ comes from popular media, which inundates us with news stories and movie portrayals of the suffering artist and the mad genius. And there are anecdotal accounts closer to our real lives: many of us have heard stories about someone who suffers from a deep depression – but also creates beautiful poetry. Repeatedly hearing these accounts fuels a stereotype. When we frequently see two unique things (eg, extraordinary creativity and mood disorders) occur together, they become paired in our minds, creating what is termed an illusory correlation.