Melancholy and the Creative Mind

        Raise your hand if you believe there is a positive link between creativity and depression. If you think an artist benefits from periods of melancholy. I bet many of you would raise your hand if I asked; after all, one only needs to look at Vincent van Gogh or Kurt Cobain to find examples of "troubled geniuses," and there are plenty more where that came from. Personally I believe it's nothing but a myth, at least the benefits part, and I speak from experience.

        The human psyche comes in many shapes and forms. We are born into this world, not as blank slates, but with partly pre-programmed DNA (new findings in the area of epigenetics make this more interesting than ever). Our environment begins to work us over as soon as we arrive and, as we develop, our habits and thought patterns push us along toward who we will become in the end. The only sure thing one can say about life is that it is unpredictable. None of us can avoid the surprises that are tossed in our way; illness and accidents, broken promises, incidents in the lives of our loved ones... all we can do is try to prepare for the blows.

        The boxer Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali was famous for leaning against the ropes in order to minimize the impact of the punches he received. The ropes were flexible, and they made him bounce back again and again after he had been hit. The tactic made him a champion. Nevertheless, innumerable blows to his head probably triggered his present crippling Parkinson's Disease. Psychologically, many of us do our best to bounce from life's ropes. Some blows are harder than others, and not all of us are "Cassius Clays." And, even if we were, damage may have been done. A recent study shows that almost once every hour one US veteran decided to end his/her life last year (22 per day). 70% of them were over 50, so they may have lived for decades in emotional agony. "Ropes" may have helped them bounce back, but, deep on the inside, something dark and paralyzing grew. Something that did not encouraged creativity but, rather, placed them in an emotional limbo.

        In his 2012 book The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success Kevin Dutton argues that those who aim for our society's highest peaks  -- whether it be in business, politics, or medicine -- would do well if they score high on the Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPI) scale. In order to climb to the top one has to be able (and willing) to push others down without being bothered by feelings of regret or remorse. I personally know people who swear by that theory, and I cringe by the moral code it represents. In my opinion caring about others, including worrying, is one of humans kind's finest attributes. Developing empathy comes with a price, though. Parents lie awake at night, hoping their kids are okay, and a spouse worries about his/her partner's well-being. Worrying is as natural to most of us as laughter and joy. Anxiety, on the other hand, especially if present over time, easily leads to depression. Not sadness. Sadness is a natural and healthy emotion. Depression is beyond sadness; it paralyzes and numbs the human spirit. Some people begin to cut themselves in order to get out of this emotional vacuum; to feel something. Or to feel something less frightening than what depression brings with it.

        Sensitive people, people who score low on the PPI scale, often struggle with messy feelings. It usually takes a sensitive mind to create good art. Now, remember, correlation does not necessarily mean causation; a sensitive person may suffer from anxiety and/or depression, but it's not the disorder that makes the person creative. On the contrary, whatever greatness comes from a troubled mind develops in spite of these damaging emotions. A personal crisis may be turned into a fruitful experience, and out of such an experience beauty or greatness may grow in the form of a painting, a poem, or a piece of music. Most of the time, however, little will happen until after the crisis is over and the artist has regained some kind of emotional control. Let's kill the myth.