Creativity and madness: High ability and mental health

Elyn Saks - photo from wikipedia

Elyn Saks: defying the predictions

Elyn Saks is a college valedictorian, Oxford scholar, Yale law student, USC legal professor – and a person with schizophrenia.

The university press release “USC law professor battles schizophrenia” declares, “However ironic, the life of Saks’ mind has been her salvation. Even as her brain attacks her with fear and hallucinations, it also provides the source of her greatest pride and stability — her work…

“Since her arrival at USC in 1989, she has been among the school’s most productive and respected scholarly writers.”

Schizophrenia affects three million Americans, and is “a form of psychotic disorder or psychosis, which means it interferes with a person’s ability to interpret reality. People with schizophrenia develop a marked change in their thinking, perceptions and behavior as evidenced by the presence of a combination of symptoms: hallucinations, delusions or false beliefs, disorganized speech, disorganized behavior, apathy and social withdrawal.

“No two cases of schizophrenia are identical; one person may have experience one or two of these symptoms, while another may experience many.” [Definition from]

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video: A tale of mental illness — from the inside
TEDGlobal 2012. [Follow link to see larger and read transcript.]

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The article A secret life of madness discusses her new book The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey through Madness, and notes that Elyn Saks “has defied the prediction of a doctor who once said she would never lead an independent life. She has even flourished, thanks to a strict regimen of medication and talk therapy.

Dashing the myths

“Now she wants to dash the myths surrounding an illness that affects 3 million Americans: Schizophrenics aren’t all emotionally out of touch, shouting and swiping at gremlins, shut away in hospitals.

“Like the story of fellow schizophrenic John Forbes Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and mathematician whose life was portrayed in the book and film “A Beautiful Mind,” Saks’ life illustrates not only the stresses mental illness places on personal and professional relationships but also how they can be overcome.”

“Ironically, the more I accepted I had a mental illness, the less the illness defined me — at which point the riptide set me free,” she says.

Enhanced creativity

In her article Creativity, the Arts, and Madness, Maureen Neihart, Psy.D. writes, “It appears that the potential for creativity is enhanced by the cognitive changes that occur within some mental states. We don’t as yet understand the chemical and anatomical pathways responsible for the cognitive changes that take place during creative and manic states.

“Artists’ reflections and observations about themselves and their work suggest that they have a very high tolerance for irrationality or deviance. In life, creation and destruction are closely related.”

Dr. Neihart adds, “Many artists report that their motivation for engaging in their creative endeavors is to work through, release, or better understand their own destructive urges.”

That is also a theme of my interview with Stephen A. Diamond, PhD.

Russell CroweJohn Nash: taking delusions seriously

Sylvia Nasar, in her bio of John Forbes Nash, Jr. – A Beautiful Mind – notes some aspects of his deviant but creatively productive thinking: “In almost everything he did – from game theory to geometry — he thumbed his nose at the received wisdom, current fashions, established methods… almost always worked alone, in his head, usually walking, often whistling Bach. …

“When he focused on some new puzzle, he saw dimensions that people who really knew the subject (he never did) initially dismissed as naive or wrong-headed. Even as a student, his indifference to others’ skepticism, doubt, and ridicule was awesome.”

[The photo is Russell Crowe as Nash in the movie A Beautiful Mind.]

In the prologue, she writes about how Nash thought about his delusions: “How could you,” began Mackey, “how could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical proof… how could you believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages? How could you believe that you are being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world?”

“Nash looked up at last and fixed Mackey with an unblinking stare as cool and dispassionate as that of any bird or snake. “Because,” Nash said slowly in his soft, reasonable southern drawl, as if talking to himself, “the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”

PKDickPhilip K. Dick: a mind on fire

Another exceptionally talented person with mental health challenges was writer Philip K. Dick (1928-1982). Films based on his novels include Blade Runner, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly.

His official site biography notes, “In his late teens, Dick later recalled, he was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia – a label that terrified him. Other psychotherapists and psychiatrists in later years would offer other diagnoses, including the one that Dick was quite sane.”

A biopic of Dick is being developed by his daughters and a major screenwriter, according to a news article (The future keepers, by Geoff Boucher, Los Angeles Times, September 15, 2007) and it will “intertwine Dick’s life story with scenes from his final and unfinished novel, “The Owl in Daylight.”

“The basic premise: An alien culture that cannot hear sound comes to Earth and inserts a bio-chip into the brain of a composer to funnel the experience of music to their society for the first time — but the fellow they pick is a hack writer of B movie scores, and the aliens hunger for a richer experience than his talent can deliver. Then the bio-chip begins to push and inspire him to new heights of creativity, but it also begins to scorch his mind.

“He’s making this fantastic music, but the rub is he’s burning his brain out,” his daughter Isa Dick Hackett said. “In many ways it really is my father’s story. He couldn’t not write — he had these experiences he had to write about — but it was all at a tremendous cost to him.”

But this great novelist lived at a time before the benefits of current medications and other treatment, and the increasing neuroscientific understanding of current research on mental disorders.

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Originally posted 2007-09-16 19:31:15.


  1. Luke says

    What im about to say is not meant to be critical of this article, which i thought was quite good, it is more a statement on peoples view on mental illness in general.

    As someone who suffers from mental illness I wish people would be able to develop more rational and open minded opinions when it comes to this problem. On one side we have a scientist, quoted in this article, who believes that artistic people deal well with irrationality and deviance. But who is he declare what is irrational? Just because he finds its difficult to understand does not mean its irrational. Then we have someone else, in the comments section, who believes practicing yoga and meditation is a form of harmless psychosis. Labeling people with different beliefs systems as being psychotic is very dangerous. Can you imagine how annoying it is, for people like me, who live with mental illness to have to deal with these degrading labels and judgements all the time, both from the proffesional scientists who believes they can declare what is irrational and from the amateur psychologists who develop what could appear to be more open minded theories, but in the end are equally degrading and miss guided. In the end I am an individual and my condition is almost as individual as i am, so please try and keep an open mind and be ready to learn rather than judge or label.

  2. says

    I’ve personally dealt with anxiety attacks my whole life. It started when I was just a teenager and I’ve had to cope with them since then. I’ve finally figured out that has helped me get them done once and for all. I will tell you that it wasn’t quick or easy, but after a while I was able to finally get rid of them. I’m no longer dealing with them and its like I’ve started a new life not having panic attacks. I also saw a Dr. Oz special a few days ago, sometimes it isn’t a panic attack that is the root of the problem, I’d also recommend talking to your doctor. Good luck!

  3. says

    Schizophrenia is a diagnosis in the DSM, nothing more.

    In the 1960’s designers accidentally discovered a problem with human physiology in relation to the vision startle reflex because it caused mental breaks for office workers. The cubicle was designed to deal with this phenomenon and the mental events stopped where they are correctly used.

    It never occurred to anyone to look other places or to consider different levels and intensity of exposure from Subliminal Distraction.

    I began to do that when my wife had a psychotic break in the payroll office of the University of Alabama, 2002. I was stunned to find that this discovery is unknown in any area of mental health services.

    Consider this question:

    Can you cite a case of someone ‘blind from birth’ having ICU Psychosis, Panic Attacks, or Schizophrenia?

    Why not? Subliminal Distraction requires competent peripheral vision.

    Subliminal Distraction can be shown to cause an altered mental state with thought processing problems that resembles schizophrenia. Long term users of Qi Gong and Kundalini Yoga begin to believe they have superhuman or supernatural powers.

    Consider what you must believe when you use Qi Gong for psychiatric improvements. A group of people stand and perform slow motion martial arts katas in unison. This waving of the arms and legs gives them the power to shape powerful life energy, Chee. That’s psychotic. …Harmless but psychotic.

    So what causes the psychiatric improvements and impossible beliefs? The groups of moving meditating people are replicating the “special conditions” of those 1960’s business offices. It is difficult to understand at first reading but SD is causing their psychiatric changes in mental state.

    Those with high intelligence, like Nash, have behaviors that allow SD exposure. They spend more time performing knowledge work.

    If this is done where there is repeating detectable movement in peripheral vision they have Subliminal Distraction exposure.

    One situation, the seminar from Landmark Education, that causes psychiatric episodes suggests that too-close side-by-side seating in classrooms is one potential source for a base of Subliminal Distraction exposure. Additional behaviors put the victim over a threshold of exposure to cause serious symptoms.

    Understand, knowledge work does not cause exposure it creates a mental state of concentration to the point of slight dissociation to engage the subliminal detection system that attempts to trigger a vision reflex. That is the “special circumstance” that allows SD exposure.

    The repeating subliminal detection of threat movement in peripheral vision eventually colors thought and reason causing paranoia.

    The repeating subliminal detection of threat movement and your brain’s subliminal attempt to warn you is a Subliminal Distraction.

    ICU Psychosis and other evidence shows that short term intense exposure causes a temporary episode that remits with no treatment.

    Qi Gong and Kundalini Yoga experiences argue that low-level long-term exposure causes fixed altered psychotic mental states.

    There is no short term successful treatment for this fixed mental state although finding and eliminating places you have exposure will prevent future episodes.


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