Research Digest

Here’s what the evidence shows about the links between creativity and depression

This is a detail of a sketch that I rendered in ink wash, and graphite.

By Alex Fradera

There’s a stereotype that mental distress is an almost inevitable part of being highly creative. But is there any substance to this idea, or have we been misled – by biographers drawn to artists with colourful and chaotic lives, and the conceits of cultural movements like the romantics?

Scientific attempts to resolve this question, which have mainly focused on disorders of mood, have so far struggled to reach a definitive answer. However, in a new review in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Christa Taylor of Albany State University has applied surgical precision to open up the existing body of research and lay out what we currently know.

Taylor identified 36 studies on the creativity-mood disorder relationship from a set of almost 3000 that were potentially relevant. She combined data from these different studies into into separate “meta-analyses”, depending on the specific question she was trying to address. We can be confident in the findings from these meta-analyses because they involved data from thousands or even millions of participants.

Taylor first looked at whether creative people are more likely to have a mood disorder compared to non-creative controls. She looked at data from from ten studies involving fine arts students, creative writers, and eminent figures from creative fields, and found that yes, there was a clear relationship between being creative and having a diagnosis of a mood disorder, such as depression (overall the association had a moderate-to-large effect size). This finding held across different ways of measuring creativity, such as musical performance or tests of divergent thinking (finding new ideas or solutions). Creativity was most commonly associated with bipolar disorder (a condition marked by periods of low and high mood). It was not associated with all mood disorders – for instance, dysthymic disorder (mood depression that is longer-lasting but milder in nature than clinical depression) was no more common among creative people than controls.

To address a slightly different question –  compared to healthy controls, are people with a clinical diagnosis of mood disorder more creative? – Taylor used a second meta-analysis combining 13 studies, including a set of mega-studies involving millions of people. The answer was a quavering no, not really. Overall, differences in creativity between people with mood disorder and control were statistically non-significant. Taylor only detected any meaningful differences by narrowing the definition of creativity – people with mood disorders scored higher for painting ability, for instance, but not for many other measures, such as on laboratory tests of creativity, for example. Focusing on specific disorders, Taylor found some evidence for superior creativity among those with bipolar disorder and major depression (but still the differences from controls were modest).

The new findings appear contradictory, but to simplify, they suggest that creative people are indeed liable to mood disorder, but overall there is little evidence that a mood disorder makes you more creative.

Some reasons why this might be:

Perhaps mood disorder is a boon to creativity, but this benefit is typically buried under a host of disadvantages and so doesn’t show up in most studies. (Compare with the clutch of successful people who attribute their success to struggles in early life; their existence doesn’t mean that we should expect disadvantage to reliably yield success.)

If low mood does have a (often hidden) beneficial effect on creativity, one possibility is that it can initiate reflections that lead to new ways of seeing the world. This could explain why the deep dives of depression were associated with higher creativity but the chronic, less extensive dip of dysthemia was not. Moreover, by combining lows with motivation-charged highs, perhaps bipolar disorder combines the deep dives with a return to the surface, giving a chance for these insights to manifest.

An alternative explanation for the new findings is that mood disorder doesn’t help creativity at all, but creativity creates mood disorder as a by-product. The lifestyle required in many creative fields can be punishing – I’m thinking of the musicians and stand-ups who spend most nights in Holiday Inns or on unfamiliar sofas; the financial instability and tournament-like nature of many artistic fields; the profligate substance misuse. The first meta-analysis showed that as mood disorder symptoms topped out, creativity actually dropped off, which could fit with this picture (but could also fit the boon-plus-disadvantage model, if the boon was only activated by mild symptoms).

Finally,  it could be that being creative just makes you appear clinically abnormal. Taylor points out this could happen in an affected manner, to “play creative”, but could also be because many aspects of the “flow state” – extended bursts of activity, disregarding the need for sleep or food, absorption or attentional wandering, rapidly flowing thoughts – are also treated as markers of bipolar disorder.

This research doesn’t fully resolve the long-running questions about whether and how mood disorders and creativity are linked, but it does pour water on some perspectives, such as expecting those struggling with a disorder to thrive creatively. Where the results are most unambiguous is in the higher incidence of disorder in creative people, which yields clear questions for future research, such as whether this is related to how strongly a culture makes assumptions about the temperament of “real artists”. And for you and me, it’s an important reminder that headlines like “creative people tend to get blue” does not imply that “being blue, you tend to get creative”.

Creativity and Mood Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Image: ddolak/Getty Images

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest