Genius and madness are close together – so the cliché. But research also shows that there is a connection between mental illness and creativity. Meanwhile, scientists also have a theory of why this is so.

“Just as madness, in a higher sense is the beginning of all wisdom, so schizophrenia is the beginning of all art, all fantasy.”

This is what Hermann Hesse writes in his novel “Steppenwolf”. Is he right? Do you have to be crazy to be creative? At least since ancient times, there has been this myth, that genius and madness are close together, disseminated by Aristotle and Seneca. Even in today’s public perception, the cliché of the genius but crazy scientist or the writer, who wavers between melancholy and delusional zeal for work.

Anyone who has never experienced mental illness could easily doubt this idea of ​​ the creative madman.  Often they are impotent or so confused that they can not even focus on the easiest things. How should such creative work be created?

And yet, over the centuries, the idea has persistently been born that genius and madness belong together in some form.

Geniuses With Mental Health Problems

Geniuses With Mental Health Problems

It is a fascinating topic for many: the genius and their delusion. For example, the composer Robert Schumann, who created his most beautiful works in his manic phases and was incredibly productive, but also had melancholic phases in which he created almost nothing.

Or – as a prime example – the painter Vincent van Gogh, who cut off his ear in his delusion. Some are tied up by the eccentric moods of the artists, others want to give meaning to their own spiritual needs. As a result, many scientists have been looking for evidence for the genius madness thesis in recent decades.

Particularly popular is the puzzle, which famous person of the past epochs which had a mental illness. In the 1990s, there were two extensive studies, one by the British, Felix Post, the other by the Americans, Arnold Ludwig. Both were able to show that celebrities – scientists, painters, actors – often suffered above average from mental illnesses.

However, Hermann Hesse’s rigorous thesis is that one must absolutely be crazy in order to be successful as a creative . For even the most severely afflicted group, the successful writers, did not all have a mental illness: up to 46 percent were affected. But there was still the missing 54 percent without known mental illness.

The study of celebrities also involves several methodological problems. They are almost always a remote diagnosis based on descriptions of contemporaries and autobiographical texts. Also, the criteria according to which celebrities were selected are not always comparable in the studies.

A look to Sweden

Cross-population studies are more relevant. A particularly comprehensive survey from 2011 comes from Sweden, a country where information on the health of its inhabitants is easily accessible. Scientists from the Stockholm Karolinska Institute found out among 300,000 mentally ill patients whether they were increasingly pursuing creative professions-artistic and scientific.

It turned out that you can’t put all the mental sufferings in a pot. People who have been treated for simple (unipolar) depression throughout their lives did not have a noticeable career choice: their preference for creative professions was no greater than in the average population.

In a completely different way, patients with bipolar disorder, in which phases of mania and depression alternate: they were above average and often working as artists or scientists. Schizophrenics showed a differentiated result: if you looked at all creative professions together, they had a rate similar to the population average. With a more detailed analysis, it became clear: there were unusually few researchers among them – and strikingly many visual artists.


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