Tortured or Genius: Is Mental Health and Creativity Co-related?

mental illness
Image Credits: BBC

“There is no great genius without a touch of madness.” – Aristotle, 350 BC.

We are all a little familiar about the expression “tortured genius.” The culture around The Tortured Genius represents that the more mentally ill the artist, the more brilliant his work. The first person that comes to mind is apparently none other than Vincent Van Gogh. His severed ear is part of popular culture parlance. When the gifted artist wasn’t having psychotic episodes or cutting a part of his ear off, he painted exquisite paintings as he transferred his inner anguish on his canvas. Others like Kurt Cobain, Sylvia Plath, Franz Kafka, etc. had similar fates. Their professional lives flourished as they battled mental illness. But the question remains. Is the idea of the Tortured Genius a myth or a reality?

mental illness
Vincent Van Gogh

“Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are melancholic and some of them to such an extent as to be affected by diseases caused by black bile?” – Aristotle

Aristotle’s original reference to melancholy was borrowed from The Humoral Theory. It was argued here that disease was an imbalance between the four primary fluids in our body- Blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The word ‘Melancholy’ is derived from ancient Greek words which are translated into ‘black bile.’ Melancholia which is often described as melancholy has defined the clinical term for ‘depressive disorders’ in addition to the moods and conditions of sadness and loss.

mental illness

Aristotle was one of the first thinkers to ever connect creativity to mental illness. He suggested that creative people are sure to possess a melancholic predisposition. His proposition sparked the age-old notion that creative people are sure to possess a melancholic predisposition.

Some significant events tend to leave a negative impact on people’s life. The feeling of being devoid and full at the same time is a feeling that can barely be justified by words. Grief could make someone’s palms swell with power and melancholia inspiring something that couldn’t be tapped into any other way.

There’s a possibility that a thin line could exist between depression and creativity.

Great art has stemmed from a lot of pain, but there has also been great art that has emerged without any pain whatsoever. There has been constant to and fro when it came to this paradox.  Do we need to be mentally ill to enhance our creativity?

Is mental illness directly related to creativity?

Image Credits: Theatre Art Life

A part of me agrees because everyone engages in imagination once in a while which means that they are surpassing reality. Creativity needs that. We don’t need to be devastatingly mentally ill to be creative. Just the mild ability to lose touch with reality is a tiny bit important to create and show us worlds that may not even exist. Mental Illness is a heavy term, but it doesn’t have to be in this case. This question cannot have a black and white answer.

Creative people think genuinely and feel deeply. They hold on to their past and their experiences in a peculiar way, unlike the rest of the population. Due to this reason behind their brain’s tenacity, they experience adverse events intensely which could further lead to loneliness, depression, and disturbance. Mental illness is not the source of creativity as it does not have a causal relationship. Torment may have creative perks, but creativity can be harnessed either way.


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