Brain power

The myth of the mad genius: Mental illness and creativity

There is no great genius without some touch of madness ~ Aristotle

Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring ~ Marilyn Munroe

From Aristotle to Marilyn Munroe, from the depiction of Nobel laureate John Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001) to the fantastic Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland (2010), mental illness and creativity have often been linked. In this article, I also include enhanced performance such as high IQ as part of creativity. It is undeniably an intriguing idea to explore and research – whether it is madness that generates the creativity or whether it is creativity that eventually drives one mad. It is almost like a case of the chicken or the egg. However, it is a false dilemma and fallacious reasoning. As we know in statistical terms, correlation or the linking of attributes does not equate to causality. Mental illness and creativity are concepts that are hard to define and measure separately, let alone when mixed together.

According to Dr Oliver Joe Robinson, one needs to “[be] wary of studies that link mental ill health with creativity or a high IQ”. He maintains that creativity is “flighty and ill defined”. Indeed, creativity and by extension the products such as art can be difficult to objectively assess. Not only that, but IQ as a metric of performance, intelligence and success is questionable. Robinson also raises the idea of cultural differences in terms of IQ as a metric, but arguably this is very relevant to the concept of creativity which may vary according to social and cultural context.

Robinson’s commentary was in response to a recent study published by the British Journal of Psychiatry testing the hypothesis that “Intellectual ability may be an endophenotypic marker for bipolar disorder” (Smith, Anderson, Zammit, Meyer, Pell & Mackay, 2015). In other words, intellectual ability measured by IQ tests could be used to predict the possibility of a mental illness. Despite only eight individuals actually developing mania from a sample size of 1881 individuals and the authors suggesting the need to replicate the study on a larger scale of cohorts, the study has been used in the media to support the link between creativity and bipolar disorder. Other studies listed in this article have also examined the links between creativity and ‘madness’. It should be noted that a predisposition to a particular mental illness is not the same as being diagnosed. Moreover, exhibiting symptoms of a particular mental illness such as bipolar disorder is not the same as being mentally ill. For example, mania is a symptom of bipolar disorder but it can also be induced by drug use. (To complicate the issue further, according to the Mental Illness Fellowship Victoria, those with bipolar disorder are “eleven times more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs than the general population”.)

Therefore, one should exercise caution when assessing studies regarding abnormal psychology and creativity and intellectual performance. There are many factors that impact both psychological conditions and creativity, and though they create an interesting link, researchers should be careful of inferring causality. One should also be aware of how psychological abilities and illnesses can be misrepresented by popular culture. Perpetuating the myth of the ‘mad genius’ and glamorising ‘madness’ is problematic as it can undermine the real problems faced by those with mental illness. Cognitive psychologist Dr Scott Barry Kaufman asked, “So is extreme, debilitating psychosis a prerequisite for art? Absolutely not. Severe mental illness is nothing to take lightly, and can make it very difficult to produce art” (2011). Additionally, mental illness has led to the tragic end of some famous creative practitioners.

It is possible that one mistakes passion for madness, unconventionality for mental illness. Indeed, this article on madness and creativity conflates uniqueness with creativity. Creativity and ‘madness’ are both concepts that are deeply complicated – these concepts have been linked in exceptional cases. Perhaps researchers ought to consider other factors that also influence creativity and mental illness such as genetics, individual experiences and environment.

Image source: Brain Embroidery by Hey Paul Studios is licensed by CC BY 2.0.

5/5 - (1 vote)

Also published on Medium.

Sally Chik

Sally Chik has a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Honours) and a Masters in Information Studies (Community Informatics). She is a versatile writer with experience in corporate and creative writing. She has worked in the libraries and information industry since 2011.

Related Articles


  1. Nice article with some salient reminders to beware cognitive bias.

    For many years I have told the story of a highly talented, autistic, inline hockey player I had the pleasure to coach. It wasn’t so much his amazing ability to read patterns in plays that intrigued me, rather that other high performing players were similar in their success compared to him. His “hockey intelligence” was unique both in expression and style.

    Whether it was an innate talent, or was in some way linked to his condition is the real question, and I have no idea how to answer it.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment, I appreciate it.

      Indeed, that is an interesting case and a great question. I wish I could shed some more insight. This is a topic that I’ve been exploring for quite some time and there are always more cases to add that both prove and disprove my assumptions – it makes the topic really fascinating. I’ve wondered whether the interest in these cases comes from the desire to discover the ‘secret formula’ behind success (or even whether such a formula exists). I suspect that is a question I will continue to revisit time and time again since success is quite a complicated concept to agree upon (even in the context of hockey – is it the contribution of a player to scoring or the success of the team or the ability to display sportsmanship or a combination of these factors?) Like creativity and mental health conditions, this is very much linked to individual experiences. Experiences that wrapped up with passion/talent and nurture/perseverance and it’s hard to separate where one starts and another begins…

      Glad you found the article interesting! Thank you for sharing your story!

Back to top button