creative health

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creative health

daya dissanayake

"No great genius has ever been without some divine madness". Aristotle.

Are doctors and psychologists trying to make out that all writers are mad or mad people are more creative, was the question which came to mind when reading the BBC report of October 16th, headlined "Creativity 'closely entwined with mental illness'". Though researchers are continuing to search for answers as to why or how creativity and mental disorders are connected, they have failed in their attempts.

By mental illness they mean Bipolar disorder, Autism, Schizophrenia, Dementia and Epilepsy. The researchers try to identify such illness in the artists, writers and scientists. Einstein is reported to have been suffering from 'developmental language disorder' and 'developmental dyslexia'

From pre-historic times, creativity was seen in people who could think outside the normal, orthodox thinking. Any behaviour or thinking which was different from the normal would have been considered as abnormal, and such people could be ostracized or were treated for mental disorders. A study done in Germany in 1949 is claimed to have found that 50 percent of poets and 38 percent of musicians were having 'psychiatric abnormality'. "The sensitivity of those with bipolar disorders....allows for unrestrained expressions. The lowered inhibition of an individual with bipolar disorder explains their ability to have multiple perspectives."

The same thing is said about ADD and ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). The University of California, Santa Barbara, reports that a 13-year old student had summed up, "Being ADD means you see things other people miss. When you see a peach you see a piece of fruit. I see the colour, the texture, and the field where it grew". This is explained by Prof. Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto,"The creative individuals remain in contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment. The normal person classifies an object, and then forgets about it, even though that object is much more complex and interesting than he or she thinks. The creative person, by contrast, is always open to new possibilities". Then all creative artists, writers and musicians suffer from ADD.

Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, T. S. Eliot, Michelangelo, Edgar Allan Poe are among the list of 42 "eminent creative people with probable mood disorders", according to clinical psychologist Dr. Kay Jamison, Prof. of psychiatry, Johns Hopkins. Either she has not studied works of Asian writers or even according the Western standards all Eastern writers have been sane and mentally sound.

Edgar Allan Poe had written in Eleonora, "Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or not the loftiest intelligence - whether much that is glorious - does not spring from disease of thought - from moods of mind exalted at the extent of the general intellect."

The artist Edvard Munch had refused psychiatric hospitalization and treatment, as emotional torments "are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and it would destroy my art". (quoted by Jamison)

The BBC report is based on research carried out at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Dr. Simon Kyaga had stated that "the disordered thoughts associated with schizophrenia might spark the all-important originality element of a masterpiece." Beth Murphy, head of Mind, the mental health charity, had said that "bipolar disorder personality traits could be beneficial to professions where they can use their creative skills." This raises the question if bipolar disorder or schizophrenia could be considered as illnesses.

As current evidence can only describe an association between creativity and mental illness, and there is no proof of a relationship, we have to ask, who is really mad, the writer, reader or the doctor who tries to find madness in artists? "The creative process is a mystery. We can know about pieces of it, but we are unlikely to unravel all of it. Many questions remain unanswered.", says Prof. Maureen Nelhart. She also says creativity involves a regression to more primitive mental processes, that to be creative requires a willingness to cross and recross the lines between rational and irrational thought.

Was the madness of Herakles divinely induced, or induced by Euripides? Or was it the madness of Euripides that we find in Herakles? To enjoy and understand a creative work, do we really have to understand the mental condition of the creator?

The Tibetan monk Lama Thubten Yeshe defines mental illness as the kind of mind that does not see reality; a mind that tends to either exaggerate or underestimate the qualities of the person or object it perceives. "All ordinary beings are like mad people". (Unmattako viya hi puthujjano). The original mental tendencies of all human beings at birth would be, like for all animals, his likes and dislikes, needed for his physical survival. But unlike with all other animals, man develops greed, envy and hatred resulting in mental illness. According to Buddha Dhamma, the only way to get rid of all these illnesses of the mind is by extinction of Thanha, which in turn extinguishes the fires of greed and envy. That is probably why Buddha Dhamma does not identify different types of mental illness, like with physical ailments.

Thus from the Buddhist viewpoint all delusions, all mental illnesses will always be with us, and this in turn helps us to create art and fiction and poetry. The day all mankind free themselves from the fetters which bind us through greed, we will all be mentally healthy, but we will also not have any creative literature or art or poetry. And we would not be needing any, either.

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