Can Your Depression Make You More Creative?

I bet you’ve heard this many times; from Vincent himself, from our beloved social media who has the knack to glorify every piece of dark content it could find, or from all the art that screams the proof of this statement. If you are anything like me, this question might have haunted you for a large part of your life, or who knows, it might still be haunting you. Which is why you are here, right?

Can your depression make you more creative? Or does your suffering lead you to a higher form of artistic creation? Or is your deteriorating mental health the birthplace for the art that you seek? Must you suffer to be as famous as Van Gogh himself?

can suffering make you more creative?

No matter how you put it, the essence of the question remains the same: whether you can be creative without going through unnecessary trauma. I mean, don’t get me wrong: Life is suffering. There is nothing easy about life. Jordan B. Peterson himself doesn’t beat around the bush when he says:

“Life is suffering. If you are suffering, or someone close to you is, that’s sad. But alas, it’s not particularly special. We don’t suffer only because “politicians are dimwitted,” or “the system is corrupt,” or because you and I, like almost everyone else, can legitimately describe ourselves, in some way, victims of something or someone. It is because we are human that we guaranteed a good dose of suffering.”

If life is suffering, it is certain we would be faced with problems whichever way we turn or whatever path we choose for ourselves, as Mark Manson declared in his world-famous book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life:

“Life is essentially an endless series of problems. The solution to one problem is merely the creation of another.”

But, as Mark Mason put it, “No matter where you go, there’s a five-hundred-pound load of shit waiting for you. And that’s perfectly fine. The point isn’t to get away from the shit. The point is to find the shit you enjoy dealing with.”

Why would you actively seek suffering when you’re guaranteed that even on your path of what you’re passionate about? Or why would you want to prolong your suffering when its time is up?

creativity and suffering

We are people who rely heavily on myths, not because they make sense to us but because they strip away that extra layer of responsibility we must have for how we live. If you think you would suddenly reek of creativity at the pinnacle of your depression, and the effort you need to put in every single day, grinding, and grasping to that grit you feel is slipping away from you, would vanish from your life, I am sorry to break it to you, but even if this does happen your mental health won’t let you celebrate your glory.

Art has been linked to mental illness for years and years. Do I want to be mentally unstable to want to create? I have thought about it. But I’ve also thought about how it feels to be in the throes of depression. A very ugly feeling indeed.

Before diving into the research and what it says about the link between suffering and creativity, I would cite Hannah Gadsby here. Her stand-up show Nanette is particularly famous for her originality and we all agree it was something a little more than just stand-up comedy.

When, after a show, Gadsby was approached by someone in the audience to let her know how she shouldn’t take any medication for her depression so that she shouldn’t stop feeling as it was important to her art, as “If Vincent Van Gogh had taken medication, we wouldn’t have had the sunflowers,” Gadsby destroyed his opinion-and the centuries-old myth- in a blow. She told him how Van Gogh self-medicated a lot, nibbled on his paints, and also did portraits of his psychiatrists, apart from the sunflowers.

Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflowers painting
Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflowers

In one of the portraits, the psychiatrist is even holding a flower; a foxglove that was used as a part of the medication. A derivative of foxglove makes one see the color yellow more intensely than usual if you take it. “So perhaps we have the sunflowers precisely because Van Gogh medicated. What do you honestly think, mate? That creativity means you must suffer? That is the burden of creativity? Just so you can enjoy it?”

To think people practically want artists to stay their unhinged versions as to not compromise their creativity seems selfish to me. Perhaps the reason why Van Gogh wasn’t successful while he was alive was due to his unstable mental health.

Nanette concludes with the following words: “Do you know why we have the sunflowers? It’s not because Vincent Van Gogh suffered. It’s because Vincent Gan Gogh had a brother who loved him. Through all the pain, he had a tether, a connection to the world. And that is the focus of the story we need. Connection.”

A recent study might tell us how schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression are related to creativity, especially among siblings and first-degree relatives of diagnosed patients. This was a 40-year study conducted on around 1.2 million Swedish people. It tells us that when the lives of eminent artistic people were studied, it was found that that they did seem to have tragic childhoods, but they don’t have to become contributing factors to their creativity.

Edward Munch. The Scream.
Edward Munch’s ‘The Scream’

Research supports that people related to those who are diagnosed with schizophrenia seem to take up a creative profession in a higher proportion than others. This introduces us to a theoretical concept called schizotypy which identifies a range of personality traits from normal dissociation to extreme states of mind such as schizophrenia.

A recent finding in neuroscience supports the link found between schizotypy and creative cognition. Hikaru Takeuchi and his colleagues decided to test the functional brain characteristics of the participants in the study while they were engaged in a difficult memory task. These participants were all psychologically healthy and had no history of any mental illness.

They found out that the more creative an individual was the harder it was for them to suppress their precuneus while performing their difficult task. Precuneus is a part of the brain that carries out complex tasks such as recollection, retrieval from memory, self-representation, perception of one’s environment, etc. This made them conclude that creative people have a hard time suppressing their precuneus, which helps them be more creative.

The same relationship has been found in schizophrenic individuals as well.

A study by Andreas Fink and his colleagues confirms that the greater stimuli that the brain provides to an individual (inability to suppress precuneus) lead to more creative ideas.

Our minds are wired for creativity. Information that we take in from the external world plays a major role in the formation of our perceptions and the creation of new ideas. In the end, creativity is just using the same things at our disposal to forge something different.   

Georgia O’Keeffe, Hibiscus with Plumeria, 1939
Georgia O’Keeffe, Hibiscus with Plumeria, 1939

So.

Can your depression make you more creative?

The answer could be yes… and no. It can either make you highly creative so you bleed your misery into your art, or it can be highly destructive and render you incapable of doing anything at all.

Creativity can unleash itself as a form of healing to one’s suffering, but isn’t adapting to any sort of change a form of creativity too?

Written by Dua K.

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