Cycles of Creativity

In describing her episodes of profound depression Daphne Merken comments on their cyclic nature. They seem to come and go in an entirely unpredictable, unexpected manner. She notes how scary that is.

And in her study of manic-depressive psychosis, Kay Redfield writes about the seasonal nature of the illness. She says,

“Two broad peaks are evidence in the seasonal incidence of major depressive episodes: spring (March, April, May) and autumn (September, October, and November. The data on mania are somewhat more scarce, but the peak incidences clearly occur in the summer months, as well as the early fall.” She attributes these variations to changes in light-dark cycle.

What interests me most in her analysis is the relationship between the incidence data and artistic creativity. She suggests that while little work has been done on this relationship, there is a “tendency for artistic productivity to increase during spring and autumn, but there is clearly wide variability across artists and writers.”

Extrapolating from the data Jamison presents suggests some consistency in the patterns of artistic productivity. She has partitioned these data in terms of whether or not the artist sought treatment during the period of their illness.

In British writers and artists with a history of treatment for depression on manic-depression, the most productive periods are in the spring and autumn. This corresponds to the incidence data above. For those who did not seek treatment for either form of the illness, the periods of increased productivity are similarly greatest during the spring and autumn months.

The reason I am dwelling on these trends is my interest in the role of weather on creative achievement. Do writers and painters do their best work when it is warm or are they most productive when it is colder or more moderate in temperature? There is virtually no data on this question, but there are some hints in the data presented by Jamison.

Hot weather, for example, is generally not conducive to creative work. Neither are the extremely cold periods of the late fall and early winter. Instead, creative work seems to be more closely associated periods of moderate temperature that occur in the spring and early autumn.

And yet Jamison produces contradictory data in analyzing the paintings and drawings of Vincent van Gogh. It is clear that his most creative periods occurred during the hot summer months of June and July in the south of France, with a lesser number during the spring and autumn months and the least during the winter months (November through February).

“The summer peak of productivity is consistent with what we know about his own description of his frenzied moods and energy during those months of the year, as well as with a perhaps natural tendency to paint more in the longer, warmer, drier days of summer. Perhaps even more interesting, however, is his pattern of productivity during the winter and late fall. From his letters it appears than van Gough had relatively more “pure” depressive episodes during November and February, and more “mixed” depressive episodes during December and January.”

It is understandable that there are wide variations in the effects of temperature on creativity. The most sensitive analysis of this issue will be revealed in a case-by-case study of individual writers and artists. I recall a comment by the psychiatrist Robert Coles:

“I’m constantly impressed with mystery, and maybe even feel that there are certain things that cannot be understood or clarified through generalizations, that resolve themselves into matters of individuality, and again, are part of the mystery of the world that one celebrates as a writer, rather than tries to solve and undo as a social scientist. …to do research and more research, and yet miss the essential point of things.”

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