The Mad Genius

The link between craziness and creativity.


The Mad Genius theory

You’ve probably heard of “the mad genius” theory – the idea that craziness and creativity go hand in hand. It is a popular perception that depression and mania are a source of creativity, and even I have penned some of my best poetry under the shadow of the black dog. Famous creative people like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Beethoven, Edgar Allan Poe, Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Woolfe certainly provide anecdotal support for the idea that crazy is creative.

And have you seen Claire Dane’s representation of a woman with bipolar on the TV series Homeland? When she is not medicated, she can think outside the box to find answers that others can’t see. Indeed, other people that may have been a little mad like  Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin came up with some revolutionary ideas!

But is the theory correct? Is it just coincidence that these creative people experienced mental health issues? And if their creativity is linked to their madness, then why and how does this phenomenon occur? These questions sent me on a quest to find some answers.

Why does it matter?

There are a few reasons why these questions matter.

  • Creativity is valued by society. Linking mental health conditions to creativity can help combat some negativity and stigma.
  • It shifts the focus from deficits to strengths and this can help with the recovery process. This is called a “strengths-based approach”.
  • Creative outlets like writing, music, dance, and arts and crafts can be useful therapeutic tools for people to help them make sense of their experiences and to release negative emotions.
  • We might be able to capitalise on this link, routinely offering creative therapeutic options rather than the conventional pill popping plus talk therapy options we mostly use today.

What is creativity?

The literature on this topic uses different definitions of creativity and different ways of measuring it. Some researchers suggest that there are two types of thinking involved – divergent thinking which involves coming up with many different ideas, and remote association which involves combining useful and unusual ideas to create new ones. Other researchers say that creativity is the ability to devise innovative solutions to problems and this may involve analytical, conscious thinking, or intuitive, subconscious thinking. Creativity might also be conceptualised as someone’s preference for certain activities/hobbies (art, music etc.). Creative occupations include artistic and scientific work.

So, is The Mad Genius theory correct or not?

In a nutshell – yes. However, there is more to the theory than crazy equals creative. I looked at several scientific articles on this topic and these are some key findings:

Creativity varies with different mental health conditions:

People with schizophrenia and bipolar are more likely to work in creative occupations compared to people with depression or those without mental health issues (Kyaga et al., 2011). It has also been found that as symptoms of bipolar increase, so does creativity. In contrast, as symptoms of depression increase, creativity decreases (Baas et al., 2016). Interestingly, there is some evidence that people with schizophrenia are more likely to be artists while those with bipolar are more likely to be scientists. Rings true for me as someone who is pursuing a career as a neuroscientist!

Mild symptoms are better for creativity than severe symptoms:

It is a common finding that whilst some aspects of mania can facilitate creativity, full-blown mania impedes it. For example, people with Bipolar II Disorder and Cyclothymic Disorder experience a milder form of mania called hypomania. They are more likely to have creative occupations and achieve creative accomplishments, compared to people with Bipolar I Disorder (Johnson et al., 2012). Also, people with vulnerabilities for bipolar are more creative than people with the actual condition (Baas et al., 2016). Vulnerability for bipolar means having the genetic disposition for bipolar or having mild symptoms that don’t actually warrant a diagnosis. One study found that when people with severe symptoms were medicated with lithium, their symptoms decreased and their creativity increased.

These research findings make sense because full-blown mania can really interfere with attention, impulse control and clear thinking. This makes it difficult for a person to actually engage in creative practices such as working in a creative job, sitting down to write music or to paint, brainstorming solutions to problems and so on.

Interestingly, some studies have shown that different symptoms of mania like increased activity, high energy, positive mood, excitement and racing thoughts are beneficial for creativity, whilst symptoms like anger, hypersexuality and impaired judgement are detrimental.

There are several theories for why The Mad Genius exists:

There are several theories about this and it is probable that they all form part of the bigger picture. Since this is a blog and not a text book, I will list a few as briefly as I can:

  • Brain differences: The prefrontal cortex of bipolar brains is different compared to typical brains. This part is responsible for executive function which includes skills like attention, impulse control, judgement and planning. People with bipolar have impaired executive function. They also have increased activity in the limbic system of their brain which is involved with emotions. So basically, reduced executive function plus reduced emotional control equals greater creativity (Tu et al., 2017).
  • Different thought processes: Mental health issues are underpinned by two motivational systems, approach and avoidance. Our brain chemistry and circuitry causes us to either approach rewarding stimuli or avoid unpleasant stimuli. The approach system promotes flexible thinking (good for creativity) while the avoidance system promotes constrained thinking (bad for creativity). Depression tends to activate avoidance, whereas bipolar tends to activate the approach system, therefore leading to flexible thinking which facilitates creativity (Baas et al., 2016).
  • Symptomology: Various studies have linked common bipolar symptoms like impulsiveness, drive and positive feelings to creativity. Euphoria broadens perception and relaxes inhibitions. Together with impulsiveness, this might encourage creative expression without restrain. And being reward-driven might help to sustain creative efforts (Johnson et al., 2012).
  • Genetics: The first-degree relatives of people with bipolar are also more creative than people who don’t have bipolar in their families. Also, creativity gradually decreases as the relatives of the person with bipolar get more distant (Kyaga et al., 2011).

My thoughts about The Mad Genius

I’ve only scratched the surface and there is a plethora of literature out there about this topic. I’ll happily be called a Mad Genius! I am a creative person and career-wise I am more driven towards science than art, although I did consider a career as a writer. I have a lot of artistic hobbies like painting, sewing, crocheting and jewellery making. I am creative in my job, always pushing the boundaries of what my role entails and I love creating new resources for my clients. I am known as a problem solver!

In terms of bipolar, I can be very productive when I experience mild or residual symptoms, however during my worst hypomanic period, I was extremely unproductive! I’d be interested to hear about your experiences too!

Here are the articles I reviewed

Baas, M., Nijstad, B., Boot, N. & Dreu, C. (2016). Mad genius revisited: Vulnerability to psychopathology, biobehavioural approach-avoidance, and creativity. Psychological Bulletin, 142(6),668-692.

Johnson, S., Murray, G., Fredrickson, B., Youngstrom, E., Hinshaw, S., Bass, J., Deckersbach, T.. Schooler, J. & Salloum, I. (2012). Creativity and bipolar disorder: Touched by fire or burning with questions? Clinical Psychology Review, 32, 1-12. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2011.10.001

Kyaga, S., Lichtenstein, P., Boman, M., Hultman, C., Langstrom, N. & Landen, M. (2011). Creativity and mental disorder: family study of 300 000 people with severe mental disorder. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 199, 373-379. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.110.085316

Tu, P., Kuan, Y., Li, C. & Su, T. (2017). Structural correlates of creative thinking in patients with bipolar disorder and healthy controls – a voxel-based morphometry study. Journal of Affective Disorders, 215, 218-224.

13 comments on “The Mad Genius”

  1. Hi Sarah, This post is very interesting, I also have a mental illness and unfortunately it holds me back sometimes in doing what I love, I am currently in my last year at Uni studying Textiles and surface design, and yes depression really does suck all the creativity out of me. I am currently planning a dissertation on ‘How is mental health expressed through art’ and would appreciate it if you would help me by visiting my blog Thank you in advance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi! Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’ll definitely have a look at your blog! I love connecting with other mental health bloggers. All the best with your studies & getting through those periods of depression that sap your creativity! Sarah Elle xx


  2. This is very interesting! I’ve heard of this before but didn’t know it was covered and explained in such detail! Reading this actually reminded me of the mathematician John Nash (he was schizophrenic) if you have heard of him? Your post reminded me of the film about him called “A Beautiful Mind”. But anyway, very interestingly written!! 🙂


  3. I found this so interesting. Mental health is so important to talk about. My sister in law has been diagnosed with bipolar, so I have had an insight. I know how hard it can be. I will be interested to see more posts! Thank you for sharing. Your posts are very honest and will definitely help a lot of people x

    Liked by 1 person

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