Touched With Fire

We’re never going to survive, unless
We get a little crazy.

Earlier this month David Brooks wrote an Op-Ed piece in the Times on the modern view, as he put it, of genius. It has little to do with intelligence, he says, and far more with hard work. It is hours and hours of deliberate practice that separates geniuses from the rest of us. In this respect he agrees with Malcolm Gladwell’s claim in his recent book, Outliers. Brooks writes, “Mozart played a lot of piano at a very young age, so he got his 10,000 of practice in early and then he built from there.

A few days later Roger Dobson took a contrary view on creative minds in The Independent.
He claims creative people in all areas from poetry, and mathematics to humor, have traits associated in mental illness. He cities evidence that compared to the population at large “the incidence of mood disorder, suicide and institutionalization to be 20 times higher among major British and Irish poets in the 200 years up to 1800.” Dobson reminds us that it was over 2000 years ago that the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “There is no great genius without a tincture of madness.”

Well before then in fourth century Athens, Aristotle asked, “Why is it that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry, or the arts are melancholic?” Kay Redfield Jamison, a physician and brilliant writer, examines this issue as thoroughly and as systematically as I’ve ever seen in her book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. She goes further in bringing together the biographical and scientific evidence for a “compelling association, not to say actual overlap, between two temperaments—the artistic and the manic–depressive.”

Jamison reviews study after study indicating, “among distinguished artists, the rates of manic depression and major depression are 10 to 30 times as prevalent as in the population at large.” William Styron, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, the poet Robert Lowell, and Vincent Van Gough come to mind. Going further, she cites a study by Dr. Arnold Ludwig that looked at the frequency of psychiatric illness among 1,004 eminent men and women in the creative arts and “ten other professions—of the stature of Aldous Huxley, Alexander Graham Bell, Albert Einstein and Henri Matisse.”

According to Ludwig, psychiatric illnesses are far more common among the artists s than among the other professions with the rate of alcoholism 60% among actors and 41% among novelists, but only 3 % among those in the physical sciences and 10% among military officers. “In the case of manic depression, 17 % of the actors and 13 percent of the poets were thought to have had the disorder, while those in the sciences were believed to have suffered from it at the rate of less than 1%, comparable to the incidence in the general population.”

More recent research is turning to the neurobiological basis of this relationship, including the emerging field of neuroimaging. This should be no surprise to readers of this blog.

What is one to make of this compelling relationship? Are we to nurture our bouts of depression, assuming we will then be able to craft the great American novel? Should we take to the bottle to turn ourselves into the Picasso of the 21st Century? Or should we, as Brooks and Gladwell argue, get with it, and practice, practice, practice? Of course, that will take the magic out of creative genius, but with a little help from our wiring who knows what we might be able to achieve if we practiced for 10,000 hours?

“Emily Dickinson was not an alcoholic, she was not abusive, she was not neurotic, she did not commit suicide. Neurotic people or alcoholics who go through life make better copy, and people talk about them, tell anecdotes about them. The quiet people just do their work.” Joyce Carol Oates.