• Emily Ott

Caring for the Creative Brain

Updated: Nov 19, 2018

As creative individuals, we know that the image of the troubled artist is often romanticized. We make judgments and write off emotional instability as a lack of professionalism, but maybe the concerns are valid. Maybe the artistic creators you think are just being dramatic are in fact struggling with mental health, like so many artistic individuals have before them. Hemingway. Van Gogh. Sylvia Plath. Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Amy Winehouse. Frida Kahlo. Marilyn Monroe. The list goes on. In 2014, we lost a legend. Robin Williams, one of the most memorable American actors and comedians of our generation, ended his life and his long-term struggle with depression. How tragic it is that some of the entertainers that make us laugh so much are so troubled inside. As artistic individuals, we wonder what this historical pattern means for us.


Does being part of a creative and competitive profession solicit emotional instability?


Are all creative minds inherently susceptible to mental disorders?


Is it something I can avoid while maintaining a healthy career?


In the United States, more and more individuals are being prescribed medications for mental health. The most common mental health diagnosis is for mood disorders including but not limited to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder. According the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about 20% of the American population struggles with depression and anxiety. Of those individuals, creators and especially theatre artists are well represented. In a 1989 English study performed by psychiatrist, Kay Redfield Jamison, playwrights and poets in particular are suggested have a high likelihood of being diagnosed with a mood disorder. In fact, 38 percent of the 27 subjects in her study reported a past of professional psychiatric help. With such a large group of artists needing mental help, the conversation about the interconnectedness of creativity and mental illness has blossomed not only in the artistic community, but also in the world of science. In order for scientists to study creativity and mental illness together, however, it is integral that they define both topics.


Unfortunately, both creativity and mental health are broad and controversial subjects that are very complicated to define and test. Therefore, drawing absolute connections between them is difficult. Furthermore, the subjects are subjective. Creativity and mental illness manifest in different ways for each individual, thus creating a controlled study can be a challenge. Nevertheless, case studies can provide significant evidence for further research.

For example, let’s take a look at the story of Ann Adams. Covered in an episode of NPR’s Radiolab podcast, Ann’s story provides interesting insight to how the creative brain functions. Ms. Adams was a biologist who at the age of 46 suddenly dropped her science career to become a full time abstract painter. Her family and friends thought that this huge shift in career was merely a change of interest. However, less than ten years later, Ann’s doctors informed her that her seemingly random creative spark was really a result of brain deterioration. Ann was diagnosed with frontal temporal dementia, which is a condition where the cells in the frontal cortex begin to cripple. As the left lobe of Ann’s brain lost cell mass, the brain did its best to improvise. The human brain is composed of many neurotransmitters that communicate in electrical currents. When some of those circuits are broken, the brain has an amazing ability to reprogram and focus on the most important functions. The scientific term for this tendency is "brain plasticity". It turns out that the brain is more capable of repairing itself than ever thought before. In Ann’s case, her condition caused her to lose the part of her brain that supports language. Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of San Francisco suggests that with the loss of language capability, Ann’s brain rewire itself to focus on the area of the brain that supports image and sensation. Therefore, her heightened sensations and vivid images were the inspiration for her work. Her brain biology was what explained Ann’s strong and sudden drive to create art. Though Ann’s case is specific to her, her story supports the common belief among scientists today that creativity is rooted in the biology of the brain.


“Are you left brained or right brained?”


When you think about the biology of the brain, you might think of the left and right brain theory, which teaches that the left brain is for logical thinking while the right brain is for creative thinking. Electrical cognition trumps this popularized idea because the neural passageways that permit convergent and divergent thinking include both sides of the brain. While the right side is the area that most recalls memories, the left side is the part that receives the constant stimuli from the outside world. Both sides work together to combine memory and perception to create new thought. In order to process information, our brains take in sensory information and then dissect and analyze organizing it into a logical pattern. The step-by-step linear understanding of information is referred to as convergent thinking.

You might use convergent thinking when checking the groceries off your grocery list as you grab the items. Creative thought, however, requires more divergent thinking, which is a result of exploring many different ways of interpreting sensory data. For example, when posed with a question, you may explore a multitude of potential answers instead of obsessing over finding the single correct one. While some people naturally have a stronger tendency to think divergently, it is possible to teach your brain to think more creatively. Everyone is inherently creative, but some need to focus specifically on working that muscle if you will.

A study done at the University of New Mexico suggests that higher creativity is attainable through exercised divergent thinking. Author of the study, Rex Jung, suggests that divergent thinking habits can actually work to reprogram brain passageways to lean more towards the creative individual. So, you can grow in creativity through practice in divergent thinking!


You may be asking, “What does divergent thinking have to do with mood disorders in creative people?” In 2005, scientists Verharghen, Joorman, and Khan conducted a study that suggested individuals suffering with depression and anxiety tend to have higher divergent thinking scores and more creative tendencies. Perhaps depression and anxiety are common mood disorders for artists simply because highly creative brains are innately more driven to think divergently than the average person. Another theory is that people who suffer from depression and anxiety are more creative simply because creative expression provides a coping mechanism for processing such heightened emotions. In this respect, art provides a good outlet for emotional frustration. Psychologist Felix Post, went so far as to suggest that the emotional instability that accompanies mood disorders is actually the cause of most authentic creative art. Perhaps you have heard a friend who is struggling with depression say that his or her art is the only thing that gets them up in the morning. Maybe you have had a conversation with a fellow actor who claims that the theatre is a vehicle for cathartic expression to alleviate some of the emotional stress. A study conducted at Tuffs University and published in the 2007 Journal of Neuroscience supported Post’s notion through electrical brain imaging with an electroencephalogram (EEG). Tuffs researchers discovered that emotional processing of depressed people is heightened as displayed by the activity within the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Such biological activity in the brain suggests that strong emotional response and creative expression are closely linked.


So, how do we cope?


What do we do with this information?


How do we continue doing our art and maintaining mental health?


First of all, before you make judgments about other artists, be sensitive to their mental wellbeing. Many people in the biz would argue that empathy is the root of the best and most truthful work. Also, it is important to take the time to make your own mental health a priority. Your art will suffer if you are not well! If you are struggling with a mood disorder or some other form of mental illness, you are not alone.


I hope this article has helped you to see that so many of our fellow artists deal with the same kind of emotional stress and it is not shameful to reach out to your creative community for support. Get the medical attention you need and know that your art is worthy. The way your brain works is intricate and it is what makes you the unique artist you are, so trust in that! Take care of your creative brain.