Annotated Bibliography: Creativity and Mental Illness

Annotated Bibliography

Andreasen, Nancy C. “The Relationship between Creativity and Mood Disorders.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 10.2 (1987): 251–255. Print.

Before 1987, the only research that had been conducted on the relationship between creative genius and mental illness was based on anecdotes and much of it was general, seeking only to discover whether a relationship existed or not. The first study that empirically tested the relationship and asked deeper questions was neuropsychiatrist Nancy C. Andreasen’s fifteen-year-long study of writers in the University of Iowa’s Writing Workshop, published in 1987. To address her initial question of whether a relationship between creativity and mental illness exists, Andreasen interviewed thirty faculty members of the workshop as well as thirty control subjects from various non-creative careers about their creativity and their history of mental illness. She then diagnosed those who were mentally ill using the standard criteria from the psychology field and compared the rate of mental illness between the two groups, finding that eighty percent of the writers experienced mood disorders in comparison to just thirty percent of the control group.

One of the most apparent questions in this field of research is whether creativity and mental illness are biologically linked. In her study, Andreasen addressed this question by examining the first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, etc.) of each of the writers in her study to determine if the traits of creativity and mental illness could be heritable. The study found that first-degree relatives, especially siblings, of the writers tended to pursue more creative occupations and hobbies, many of which were outside of the field of literature or writing, than the control group. Furthermore, forty-two percent of writers’ first-degree relatives had mood disorders compared with eight percent of control relatives, suggesting that creativity and mental illness are biologically linked.

The Iowa Writers Workshop study will address an integral piece of my research question by establishing that there may in fact be a relationship between creativity and mental illness and that link may be biologically determined. This information can be applied to the family history of Virgina Woolf from Kay Jamison’s Touched with Fire and Thomas Caramagno’s The Flight of the Mind to support my hypothesis that heritability is one of the many factors at play in the high rate of mental illness among the creative. One potential weakness in Andreasen’s research is that the rate of mood disorders among the control group was higher than the national average, suggesting that she may have overdiagnosed the study participants. Additionally, the study was not conducted so that the interviewer was blind to whether a subject was a writer or a control, so Andreasen could have been biased in her diagnoses. The study also lacks a quantitative measure of creativity and assumes that the women in the writing workshop are more creative than others; this measure is not included in the scholarship until Arnold M. Ludwig’s 1994 study. At the end of the article, Andreason establishes the need for more research into the causes of the relationship between creativity and mental illness. Since Andreason published her article in 1987, she has conducted numerous further studies on the subject that I anticipate using in my paper, and a number of researchers have expanded on her work including Ludwig, Kay R. Jamison, and James C. Kaufman.

Caramagno, Thomas C. The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf’s Art and Manic-Depressive Illness. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. Open WorldCat. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

In his analysis of the madness in Virginia Woolf’s life and literature, Thomas Caramagno advocates for a more interdisciplinary approach to biographical scholarship, particularly the inclusion of recent biological research on manic depression. Caramagno notes that much of the analysis of Woolf’s work has been either directly or implicitly influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, which he claims “sustains sexist assumptions” about creative women and ignores the cyclical nature of manic depressive disorder, the illness from which Woolf almost undoubtedly suffered. Caramagnno’s book will be particularly pertinent to my research because it examines how Woolf’s illness would have been viewed in the highly patriarchal Victorian age in which she lived and details how her experiences with mental illness affected her literature. Much of his analysis applies Jamison’s theories about the cyclical nature of manic-depressive disorder to Woolf’s body of work, highlighting the ways in which her illness contributed to her success in writing. Though Caramagno does not make extensive use of any of the other sources included in this bibliography other than Jamison’s work, I can apply the other research I discovered with the information in this book. Furthermore, many of Caramagno’s arguments contradict or present the findings of the other studies in a new light, which will be helpful as I apply my research to Virgina Woolf.

I predict the aspect of The Flight of the Mind that will be most useful in my research will be the manner in which it criticizes problematic and outdated ways of looking at Woolf’s body of work, making me more aware of fallacious arguments I or other scholars may attempt to make. In particular, Caramagno stresses the importance of examining Woolf’s illness using the more accurate biological and psychological models that have recently been developed (like those created by Andreasen and Jamison) rather than psychoanalytic models that he views as mostly invalid. The book also includes detailed biographical information that will be valuable, including an entire chapter on the history of mental illness in Woolf’s family, identifying eleven of twenty-eight members on her family tree as having a mental illness. Like many of my other sources, Caramagno’s book relies heavily on the subjective interpretations of the author in drawing conclusions, which I will need to be conscious of when using this source.

Jamison K.R. Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. New York: Free Press, 1994. Print.

In Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched with Fire, the author outlines her own research into mood disorders among creative individuals and makes arguments based on the research of other scholars including A.M. Ludwig and Andreasen, covering a wide variety of topics under the general umbrella of manic depressive disorder and creativity. This book is particularly applicable to my line of research because it primarily focuses on bipolar disorder, the disease from which Virginia Woolf likely suffered, rather than the more general description of mood disorders like much of the other research. In her research studies, Jamison relies upon autobiographical, biographical, and medicals records of artists as well as their family histories. While she claims that “highly useful” research can be obtained through biographical studies, she cautions that it is important to consider the potential bias of the biographer and the one-sided nature of personal writings by the artists as well as the problems that arise when scholars attempt to apply characteristics of one individual to an entire group, something that I will need to be mindful of when I am conducting my analysis.

In one of the many studies Jamison conducted that she included in the book, she examined the incidence of mood disorders and suicide of the most prominent British and Irish poets who were born between 1703 and 1803. Her analysis concentrated on patterns in symptoms of mood disorders, the progression of the disease, and indication of other illnesses, finding that there was a “strikingly high” rate of mood disorders and suicide among the poets when compared to the general population during that period; in fact, the poets were thirty times more likely to experience mood disorders. Another of Jamison’s studies that will be particularly useful in my research due to its application to manic-depressive disorder is the research she conducted on the role of moods in the creative work of contemporary British writers and artists. Like the eighteenth century writers, the artists had much higher rates of mood disorders, but what was more interesting was that nearly all of the participants, 89 percent, reported experiencing intense periods of high productivity and creativity that were consistent with the psychological standards for manic-depressive disorder. While these findings do not indicate that each of the 89 percent could be diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder, they do suggest that there is a link between creative productivity and manic states, which will be an interesting observation to apply to my analysis of Virginia Woolf.

Much of Jamison’s work seems to be prompted by the same questions that Andreasen left us with in her research study. For example, Jamison addresses the issue of familial association between creativity and mental illness in an entire chapter she devotes to studying the history of mental illness in the families of major creative geniuses, including Virginia Woolf. Additionally, she attempts to satisfy Andreasen’s request for more research into the cause of the relationship between creativity and genius by examining the degree to which the symptoms of mood disorders positively affect creative outcomes.

Kaufman, James C. “The Sylvia Plath Effect: Mental Illness in Eminent Creative Writers.” The Journal of Creative Behavior 35.1 (2001): 37–50. Wiley Online Library. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

Kaufman is heavily critical of the methodologies used in previous studies on the relationship between creativity and mental illness, including those by Andreasen, Jamison, and Ludwig. His main concerns with their research is the relatively small sample size in Jamison’s study of contemporary British authors, the potential bias in biographies of eminent writers used in Ludwig’s study, and the concentration on a single type of writer in Andreasen’s Iowa Writer’s Workshop study. He also challenges their conclusions by pointing to some other studies that showed positive personality traits in writers like persistence and curiosity contribute more to writers’ success than mental illness, which I will likely reference in my paper. Rather than looking at whether creative people are more likely to suffer form mental illness, Kaufman chose to explore which people who are involved in the arts experience mental illness most frequently.

Kaufman’s paper was divided into two different studies he conducted to investigate whether some types of creators are more likely to have psychological disorders than others. The first examined biographical data from 1,629 writers including both male and female poets, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, and playwrights. Reading this article, I found it strange that Kaufman seems to reject biographical studies as biased, but then proceeds to describe the biographical study he conducted. Kaufman acknowledges that the study is based primarily on his own perception of mental illness in the writers’ biographies, but he claims his analysis is still valid because he uses key identifiers like hospitalization or suicide attempts and he averages his ratings of the degree of mental illness with those of a second rater. Using a logistical regression on his data, Kaufman found that female poets were significantly more likely to be mentally ill than other types of writers. While there is abundant evidence that women are at a higher risk of mental illness than men, this does not explain why female poets have a higher rate than women who write fiction or non-fiction. In order to explore this question, Kaufman conducted his second study in which he examined the biographical information of eminent women from a wide variety of fields including fiction writing and poetry among others, finding that female poets remained the most likely to have mental illness and experience tragedy, a conclusion that he calls the “Sylvia Plath Effect.” The most interesting and useful part of Kaufman’s article for my paper is not his research conclusions, but his theories for why the Sylvia Plath Effect may exist, many of which suggest that the qualities that come along with mental illness promote creativity. I plan to explore many of the sources contained in the conclusion to this article, as they present alternative viewpoints to the other research I have read.

Ludwig, A. M. “Mental Illness and Creative Activity in Female Writers.” The American Journal of Psychiatry 151.11 (1994): 1650–1656. Print.

Arnold Ludwig, inspired by Andreasen’s “landmark study” at the Iowa Writer’s workshop, attempts to reproduce and add to its findings by conducting a similar study on a different group of writers with slightly different methods. What distinguishes Ludwig’s study from that of Andreasen is his focus on women as participants, his inclusion of childhood sexual and physical abuse as a factor in his analysis, and his used of a quantitative measure of creativity rather than assuming that writers are more creative. Ludwig also seeks to study the ways in which psychiatric illnesses other than mood disorders affect creativity, attempting to move away from the emphasis in the scholarship on manic-depressive illness that Jamison and Andreason’s work has prompted. In his study, Ludwig examined fifty-nine writers from the Women Writers Conference and a control group of women from non-creative fields that were matched for a variety of demographic and intelligence-related factors. The participants were assessed in a series of tests and interviews that are standard to the psychiatric field and completed a questionnaire used to identify psychiatric disorders. Ludwig also chose to quantitatively measure the creativity of the participants using the Lifetime Creativity Scales tests, addressing an issue in the earlier scholarship of Andreasen and Jamison. Like the Iowa study, participants rated their first-degree family members’ level of creativity and mental illness so that the heritability of these traits could be studied.

Ludwig’s research validated the findings in the Iowa study, revealing that the female writers were almost twice as likely to have a mental disorder than participants in the control group and the first-degree family members of writers were far more likely to both have a mental illness and display creativity. The study also introduced new findings into the scholarship regarding the role that childhood sexual and physical abuse can play in the development of mental illness and creativity. A significantly higher percentage of female writers reported abuse than the control group, and Ludwig found that the women who were abused experienced mental illness at a much higher rate than those who were not. His findings also recognized that not only do female writers have higher rates of mood disorders, but they also exhibit panic attacks, eating disorders, drug abuse, and generalized anxiety far more frequently than control subjects, suggesting there may be more factors at play than just a single disorder when it comes to creativity. This study is applicable to my research not only because it validates the work of earlier researchers, but also because it introduces new findings that specifically relate to Virginia Woolf including the effects of childhood abuse on creativity and mental illness and the presence of psychiatric conditions in conjunction with mood disorders in women writers. In Ludwig’s concluding remarks, he recommends further research into the “extraordinary mental processes” of writers, a task that Andreasen undertakes in her 2005 book, The Creating Brain, in which she examines the biological and neuropsychological factors of creative intelligence.






One thought on “Annotated Bibliography: Creativity and Mental Illness

  1. sariegel says:

    Diane, I see you doing a lot of great things in your annotated bibliography to really flesh out your sources. For one, you express very clearly how each source can and will be utilized in determining and/or supporting your argument. You’ve also really managed to discuss in detail possible biases in each of your sources, including between your sources. In discussing your first source, for instance, you call out the lack of blindness on the part of the interviewer, the relatively high prevalence of mood disorders in the study compared with the national average, and the lack of quantitative measurements. It’s so important that you not only recognized these elements, but that you also mentioned other studies that improved some of these faults. The conversation happening between your sources in regard to bias is tremendous. This shows that you truly have found sources that are in conversation with each other.

    I really like that you included an early study that laid the groundwork for the ones to come, including those specific to your analysis of Virginia Woolf. I notice that you also explain the ways in which your sources stand alone or differ from each other in addition to how they interrelate, further demonstrating how they build on each other. One striking example of this is within your explanation of Ludwig’s study in comparison to the earlier Iowa Writer’s study. You’ve really done a phenomenal job of bringing these sources further into conversation with one another. I did have one question about your second source. You mention in the bottom of your first paragraph on this source that you can “apply the other research [you] discovered with information in this book.” How exactly are you planning on doing this? It might be helpful for you to really consider this and how your next claim that Caramagno’s findings present a different perspective on other studies will influence your argument specifically, especially as it specifically relates to your case study of Virginia Woolf.


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