Crazy = Genius: Why is creativity associated with madness?


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There’s a song I keep playing at the moment.

It’s called Migraine.

Written by Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots, it’s an explosion of ideas about an explosion of ideas.

The lyrics describe how, even though things can look fine from the outside, there can be a thousand monstrous thoughts ricocheting around inside your head.

The structure is irreverent.

Joseph’s voice has a fissure running through it.

The song is poetry. It epitomises the bizarre, brutal, brilliant ways the mind fights against itself. The way inspiration and frustration can war with each other.

Listening for the first time, it was one of those songs that just absolutely struck home.

Sometimes the only way to feel grounded – like all the lights are on, like the world makes sense – is to write it all down.

Many other writers have felt and do feel the same. For them there’s catharsis and revelation hidden in the spaces words create. Likewise for musicians and painters and dancers and scientists and entrepreneurs and anyone else who looks at a problem and studies it, pulls it apart, works their way around it, builds upon it, breaks it, solves it, or finds a new angle to it. Without doing these things, their plot would feel lost and any semblance of a personal narrative forsaken.


Anyone else sense a theme developing in these blogs?

Yeah, I’m sorry, I’m a little bit fixated on the dynamics between inner and outer worlds at the moment. The concept of duelling of polarities within one entity. The Scots call it ‘Caledonian Antisyzygy‘. I don’t know what you call it when you’re from London.

Point is, one of the characters in the crime novel I’m trying to write (emphasis on trying) has a ‘crazy genius’ reputation. A thirty-something extrovert with a Complicated Backstory made of Nightmare Fuel, he’s probably my favourite in terms of character development. This might just be because I’m working on laying the plot of his story line right now, but one of the ideas I really enjoy playing with is the role of stereotyping and internal/office gossip, and he allows me to do this on so many levels.

Migraine is one of the songs I’ve come to associate with my ‘crazy genius’ character. He’s actually neither. He’s not crazy. He’s not a genius. He is pretty intelligent and he does have a diagnosable mental condition, but suffice to say he’s the subject of much speculation during the novel.

And this set me thinking about why so many people correlate genius with crazy.

We’ve all heard of the ‘mad genius’. Accounting for our Van Goghs and Plaths and Schumanns and Newtons and Da Vincis – there are ‘mad’ scientists, writers and artists peppering  history. The idea goes all the way back to Aristotle (supposedly) who said in 350BC that “no great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.”

These days the mad genius is a popular character trope. Seriously, you can find it just about every television show with a ‘quirky’ protagonist. We have autistic but brilliant sleuths, neurotic but successful lawyers, depressed but powerful superheroes.

Some commentators have looked at this trend and asked whether it’s helping or hindering people with mental health conditions? It’s a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand we finally have fully rounded characters who live with but are not defined by their diagnosis. On the other, so many of them are also equated with super-high IQs, which some argue glamorises mental illness.

The same could arguably apply to the ‘crazy creatives’ and all the plaudits layered upon artists deemed a bit off kilter. There’s actually a statistic suggesting art attributed to ‘eccentric’ originators gains more favourable attention from its audience. As if it’s somehow more validly creative than art from ‘normal’ artists.

Psychologists and neurologists alike have studied the association between creativity and madness. Surprise, surprise, there’s no consensus.

The Verge made a nifty video related to one such crazy = genius study:

And this is just one example.

A study released in 2011 showed there might be a link between ‘being bipolar, or being a close relative of someone who’s bipolar’ and ‘having a creative job’. But the study was flawed – below the surface, the data is far from comprehensive, plus non-bipolar family members seemed to show the same tendency towards creative jobs as their bipolar children or siblings.

Likewise, a paper published in August 2015 in the British Journal of Psychiatry implies people suffering from the manic features of bipolar disorder in adulthood demonstrated higher intelligence as children. The conclusions drawn by the writers of the report suggest that ‘madness’ is therefore an evolutionary hangover, a side effect that humanity has to live with due to the development of our creativity – particularly linguistically. But, again, the study contains problems – not least that the ‘manic features’ discussed in the paper almost exclusively refer to the ‘euphoric highs’ of bipolar rather than any alternative symptoms such as disordered thinking or psychosis. Moreover, the relationship between IQ and creativity is itself relatively weak. More credible studies have shown that intelligence is less important than openness to experience and general inquisitiveness.

So there appears to be little in terms of clinical assessments to prove creativity and madness are inextricable from each other.

Yet the stories around ‘mad genius’ are pervasive. Especially in terms of artistic talent.

Dr Nancy Andreasen, a leading neuroscientist who specialises in creativity, gives an amazing, exhaustive overview from the Ancient Greeks right through to today in The Atlantic. She highlights many of the issues facing those who want to investigate the relationship – such as trying to find the right control group, coming up with parameters, balancing objectivity and subjectivity.

It’s fascinating, and when the results are all through I expect umpteen sensational headlines to trail in its wake. Yet even this relies heavily on story – tales of loss, grief, depression, trauma, mania – to compliment the neuroscience.

It’s like we’re looking for science to give us the answer we want to hear: that madness does lead to creative genius.

Right now, as with many things, I’m still reading and researching, building a profile for my character (if you have any cool bits of research that you think I should read that argue one way or the other then please send them my way) but we associate these two qualities of creativity and genius with each other, not because of science fact, but because of stories.

Perhaps it’s the way some ‘crazy’ artists and writers have captured that pinnacle of emotion – the angst in Scream, the awe in Ted Hugh’s poetry, the nail-on-the-head in Migraine. Art tells us stories about extremes. We clutch at the fragments that hold meaning for us. If this is the case then the suffering artist may hold a lot of sway over our imaginations, but creativity is more akin a form of psychological adaptation than an upshot to mental illness.

We connect creativity and madness because of anecdotes that become legends, passing tales down through generations.

And that in itself is a curious thing.

5 thoughts on “Crazy = Genius: Why is creativity associated with madness?

  1. Jack Binding says:

    I mainly write, compose or cook is because I feel I will go mad if I don’t. Music or art therapy may sound like hippie nonsense, but there’s proof it works. Often the inability to express oneself that creates or exacerbates certain psychological problems (from autism to anxiety). The creative outlet gives the individual that chance for expression. Basically, talking overrated. Write that shit down or play it loud.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The Scribble Bug says:

      So on my wavelength. Agree completely. Will admit that if I’m having a shitty time with something, I tend to get more productive writing wise. But usually I’ll be having a shitty time because I’m not writing. It’s all one big circle of ‘need to express the thing’ and if I don’t then I get angsty and anxious.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dr Meg Sorick says:

    I’m not sure if my writing is making my weirdness better or worse. It’s certainly more focused. I “feel” better writing because I’m not one to talk about what goes on in my head. But my social interactions are suffering I think. *cough* crazy cat lady *cough*

    Are you taking that online class? Is this part of it? This is all fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Scribble Bug says:

      It’s certainly been inspired by all the reading I’m doing on mental health. I love this stuff and have missed researching neuro since uni (though admit I needed the time off to realise that I still love it). Can see what you mean about the line between weirdness/writing though – it’s a fine line I think, but that’s why we end up with writing buddies I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

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