Depression

Debunking the Validity of the “Tortured Artist” Trope

November 27, 2019

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Ludwig van Beethoven, Vincent van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Georgia O’Keeffe—these names belong to the creators of great artworks who have cemented a place in history for their contributions to music, painting, and writing. These names also belong to people who struggled with mental health conditions such as depression, alcoholism, and bipolar disorder—which, in some of their cases (van Gogh and Plath), resulted in their suicides. 

Of course, these are not the only famous artists who suffered (or have been speculated to have suffered) from mental health conditions. In fact, notable creatives are so frequently documented as having (or having had) issues with their mental health that a trope has emerged surrounded the phenomenon: the trope of the tortured artist. 

Not only is this trope extremely toxic and even potentially dangerous, but the theory behind it—i.e., that a mental health condition is a driving force behind creativity—might even be scientifically incorrect. That being said, the two might share an underlying link: Research suggests that the same brain waves that are associated with creativity could also help treat mood disorders. 

Keep reading to find out:

  • How depression and other mood disorders can affect creativity.
  • The role of brain waves in mood and mental state. 

Mood Disorders and Creativity: Are the Two Connected?

Researchers have long been trying to figure out if there’s any scientific evidence to support the legitimacy of the “tortured artist” or the “mad genius.”  In 2017, Albany State University’s Christa L. Taylor released a systematic review of the research regarding mood disorders and creativity

In her meta-analysis of an array of different studies, Taylor looked at two questions: 

  1. Are creative people more likely to have mood disorders?
  2. Are people with mood disorders more creative?

What it means to be creative is highly subjective, and the studies used a variety of determining factors to find the subjects who they could consider creative. These factors included divergent-thinking tests and profession. As such, most of the “creative” subjects were involved in creative fields such as fine arts and writing, whether as students or professionals. 

Overview table listing the study and the corresponding creative groups, comparison groups, and diagnostic methods.
Above are the demographics that are featured in the various studies’ creative groups (i.e., the experimental groups) and the study’s comparison groups (i.e., the control groups). The diagnostic methods are also listed. Image courtesy of Perspectives on Psychological Science

Taylor found that creative people did seem more likely to have a mood disorder than control subjects, and bipolar disorder was the condition most prominently found in the creative subjects. However, Taylor did not find evidence to show that subjects with mood disorders showed higher rates of creativity than neurotypical subjects. In the study’s conclusion, she writes that “Asking if creativity is related to mood disorder is too general to yield constructive answers and may lead to faulty or overgeneralized conclusions.” 

More about Mood Disorders

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, a mood disorder “is a mental health class that health professionals use to broadly describe all types of depression and bipolar disorders.” 

Most Common Types of Mood Disorders:

  • Major depression* — Also known as major depressive disorder or unipolar depression, major depression is characterized by feelings of hopelessness, emptiness, and, in some cases, suicidal thoughts. 
  • Dysthymia* — Another name for dysthymia is persistent depressive disorder. This disorder results in long-term, continuous depression that manifests in chronic low-mood and feelings of disinterest for a period of two years or more. 
  • Bipolar disorder* — Previously called manic depression, bipolar disorder is categorized by extreme mood fluctuations. People with bipolar disorder experience episodes of both mania and depression, or “highs” and “lows.” 
  • Mood disorder related to another health condition — Many non-psychological medical conditions (e.g., cancer, physical injuries, infections, chronic illnesses, etc.) can result in a person developing depression or suffering from depression-like symptoms. 
  • Substance-induced mood disorder — Substance abuse disorders are often accompanied by troubles with mood, such as mood swings and symptoms of depression. 

*Major depression, dysthymia, and bipolar disorder are mood disorders that appear most predominantly in Taylor’s study. 

Flow chart depicting the effects of creative drives on creativity
Research indicates that mood heavily influences creativity. While creative processes vary from person to person, negative moods, typically, are not conducive to creativity. Image courtesy of Frontiers in Neural Circuits

Behind Creativity: Brain Waves and Mental State

Neurons in the brain use electricity as a means to communicate with one another. At any given moment, billions of neurons in your brain are rapidly moving, sending and receiving signals to create thoughts and determine your state of consciousness. These ongoing movements are known as brain waves. 

Psychology Today writes, “The combination of synchronized electrical activity in the brain is called a ‘brain wave’ because of its cyclic and ‘wave-like’ in nature. Brain waves can be detected using medical equipment, such as electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures the oscillation of electricity levels in different areas on the scalp.”  

So, what do brain waves have to do with creativity? Well, in short—everything. Because creativity is an internal phenomenon originating in the brain, being in a creative state of consciousness can be traced back to the manner in which your neurons are communicating (i.e., brain waves). 

Types of Brain Waves

The different types of brain waves are defined by their respective bandwidths. Each type of brainwave produces a different state of consciousness, and as such, we experience brain waves of varying bandwidths throughout the day depending on a variety of factors, both internal and external. There are five categories of brain waves: 

  1. Delta waves: The slowest type of brain wave, delta waves are found during deep, dreamless sleep. 
  2. Theta waves: Like delta waves, theta waves are usually associated with sleep but have also been found in the deepest state of Zen meditation. 
  3. Alpha waves: The brain produces alpha waves when it is in an idle, “default state.” In most people, alpha waves occur when daydreaming or, sometimes, when engaging in aerobic exercise. People who practice meditation or mindfulness aim to create alpha waves because they are synonymous with a “clear” state of mind. 
  4. Beta waves: This type of brain wave is generated when we are concentrating on a specific task and is what our brain activity looks like for most of the day. While beta waves are involved in decision making and paying attention, they are also linked to anxiety and depression because of repetitive thought patterns and cyclical negative thinking. 
  5. Gamma waves: The fastest type of brain waves, gamma waves appear when our brains are simultaneously processing information from different areas of the brain. 
Different types of brain waves
Brain waves are measured in hertz, and as you can see, no type of brain wave is stagnant, meaning that there is a range of hertz for each type of wave as the frequency ebbs and flows. Image courtesy of Well + Good

Brain Waves and Creativity

You might think that you’re most creative when your brain waves are the fastest, but research suggests that alpha waves are actually the best type of brain waves for promoting creativity. In 2018, researchers in London conducted four experiments relating to alpha brain waves, divergent thinking, and creativity and found that subjects with higher levels of alpha-brain-wave activity displayed a greater tendency to make remote associations and demonstrate creative problem-solving skills. 

Figure from study looking at brain waves and creativity
Part A of this figure depicts the topographical distributions of ideas that were rated for remoteness, cleverness, and general creativity. Part B shows the individual alpha peak frequencies as the ideas were generated by the experiment’s participants. Image courtesy of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Alpha brain waves indicate that the brain is in a state of relaxation, making it less susceptible to intrusive thoughts and outside influences. This makes it easier to come up with original ideas and utilize less habitual routes of thinking—in other words, the brain is free to be creative. 

Ways to Control Brain Waves 

Because a person’s mental state—and by extension, their mood—is rooted in the type of brain waves that they’re experiencing, researchers have been looking for ways to treat mood disorders by altering brain waves. Because alpha brain waves allow your mind to separate itself from external factors, researchers theorize that inducing alpha waves can help to reduce symptoms of mood disorders like depression. 

Artificial Brain Wave Stimulation

Researchers from the University of North Carolina found that stimulating the brain via a low dose of electricity could enhance alpha-brain-wave activity and boost creativity. Though the study purely functioned as “proof of concept,” the results suggest that artificial brain wave stimulation could potentially treat mood disorders

Graph showing results from using brain wave stimulation to treat mood disorders
The researchers used the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking’s Creativity Index to measure subjects’ levels of creativity. Image courtesy of Cortex

Meditation 

Meditation and mindfulness training are often recommended to patients who have a mood disorder, and the two practices have been shown to stimulate the production of alpha brain waves, meaning that meditation is not only useful for those with mood disorders but also anyone who is looking for a natural means to promote creativity. 

During meditation, the practitioner usually works to clear their heads and focus on breath or repeating a certain phrase. And with practice, meditation is able to turn beta brain waves into alpha brain waves, enabling more control over the thought process and establishing the ideal mental state to foster creativity. 

Moving Away From Glorifying the “Tortured Artist” 

Romanticizing mental illness is a harmful phenomenon that, unfortunately, comes in many forms, especially within the context of popular culture. The “tortured artist” trope isn’t new—it’s existed since society began to perceive art as a nontraditional lifestyle. In fact, some artists have even embraced the label and claim that their ability to create stems from inner turmoil. And while art certainly can be used as a healthy coping mechanism, the idea that an artist must suffer in order to produce good work is a harmful stereotype that encourages avoiding or abandoning treatment, which is always dangerous. 

Creativity is a beneficial outlet for everyone, whether they have a mood disorder or not. Furthermore, receiving treatment for a mood disorder doesn’t make a person less creative or inhibit their ability to pursue art—and the patterns researchers have found in brain waves support this statement. 

As we learn more about the brain, we have a responsibility to change the ways that we think and talk about mental health, as well as the way that we portray it in the media. The tortured artist is one of the many misrepresentations that we need to move away from as we work to reverse the stigma surrounding mental illness.


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