This post is adapted from an article in Psychology Today and is offered up so that we may understand more the relationship between creativity and depression.
The list of historical political and military figures who appear to have suffered from depression seems to be limitless, including such luminaries as Benjamin Disraeli and William T. Sherman, later notables such as Winston Churchill, writers over the decades (Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling), and modern celebrities (Jim Carrey, Eminem, Anne Hathaway).
Articles about the possible relation of depression to success in politics or the arts have taken two general views—that these people were able to overcome their depression and go on to greatness, or alternatively that something about their mood disorder aided them in the process.
Abraham Lincoln’s tendency toward what was then called “melancholy” was well known by his neighbors in New Salem, Illinois. In his mid-twenties, after a woman to whom he felt close died of typhoid, he led an isolated life, spent long periods of time alone in the woods with his gun, and wrote gloomy poetry. Though he occasionally sought merriment with his friends, he confided to one colleague that his mood was such that he dared not carry a knife.
Five years later in 1840, the young politician was so troubled that neighbors removed all the razors and sharp objects from his home. He requested help from a doctor and at one point sought pharmacologic relief with various medicines including sedatives, camphor, and mercury-based “blue mass” pills (The latter, which he later discontinued, contained roughly 100 times the modern EPA guidelines for mercury).
Feelings of failure and doom, as well as fatigue interspersed with agitation and thoughts of death haunted him his whole life, even as he struggled with the great issues of his day, presided over the greatest crisis in the country’s history, and ultimately saved his nation (1).
In my own experiences with depression, I have also felt fatigue and agitation and some subdued fear. I have never, however, felt so much despair as to take my own life. Most often I have this overall sense of not wanting to do anything of significance even though I realize I need to do so. I just don’t care.
One article on Lincoln described three stages which he went through — fear, engagement, and transcendence — and argued that “Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering … Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work” (1).
Is there something amidst the suffering of depression that might be of positive value and lead to achievement. Let’s look at the evidence associating depression with creativity and attainment, and the argument that the ubiquity and evolutionary persistence of depression suggest that it might be useful.
Depression and creativity
The seductive notion that a depressed mood is associated with greatness goes back at least as far as Aristotle, who believed that “Great men are always of a nature originally melancholy” (2). The notion of the “neuroticgenius” plagued by anxiety and depression continues to this day. Not surprisingly, it has generated more modern studies of a possible relationship, which interestingly, when excluding bipolar disorder, have sometimes been negative.
Psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen found “a higher rate of mental illness, predominantly affective disorder, with a tendency toward the bipolar subtype” in a group of 30 writers compared to controls (3). Alternatively, a study of 40 writers, 40 musicians, and a similar number of controls found no differences in measures of mental illness and stress (4).
A 2020 study found that artists were more likely to have vulnerabilities such as tendencies toward anxiety and depressive symptoms, as well as resources such as ego-resilience and hope, compared to non-artists (5). Modern studies, then, have shown mixed results about the possible relationship of depression and creativity.
The evolutionary argument for depression
Even though many of the features of depression such as fatigue, decreased appetite, and libido would seem to have negative evolutionary value, some have argued that its ubiquity—major depression has a past-year prevalence of about seven percent of American adults—suggests some evolutionary benefits.
During my own bouts with depression, I have definitely been fatigued but my appetite has usually not waned. My erratic libido doesn’t seem to know how to act during my still-transitioning-grieving stage. While I am trying to move on from Pam’s death, my finger still seems to be on the pause button more than I would like.
According to the article, even if depression is associated with greater adaptivity, it may be that it is not depression per se, but some other unknown trait to which it is genetically linked. Or it could be that depression had some value in a past age or some specific situation that is now less applicable. In that sense it is similar to sickle cell disease in modern Western society. All in all, it should not be a foregone conclusion that the ubiquity of depression means that it has been favored by evolution.
This post has been adapted from an article in Psychology Today by Wallace Mendelson, M.D.
In part two, we’ll look at aspects of depression that have been claimed to be helpful—ruminations leading to problem-solving, and “depressive realism.” We’ll also look at possible cognitive mechanisms by which depression might help with motivation in achieving our goals. Focus will be on major depression and the clinical features of bipolar disorder.
Portions of this post are adapted from Molecules, Madness, and Malaria: How Victorian Dyes Evolved Into Modern Medicines for Mental Illness and Infectious Disease.
1. Shenk, J.W.: Lincoln’s great depression. The Atlantic, October 2005. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/10/lincolns-great-depression/304247/ Accessed 2/28/21.
2. The Famous People: Enlightening quotes by Aristotle. https://quotes.thefamouspeople.com/aristotle-116.php Accessed 2/28/21.
3. Andreasen, N.C.: Creativity and mental illness: prevalence rates in writers and their first-degree relatives. Am. J. Psychiat. 144: 1288-1292, 1987. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3499088/ Accessed 2/28/21.