I’m Not Crazy, I’m An Artist!
August 6, 2013

I’m Not Crazy, I’m An Artist!

The “artistic temperament” is a thing of legend, and not without good reason. Creative people have always been a little different, a little on the “off” side. Vincent Van Gogh cut off his own ear and mailed it to a girlfriend; Albert Einstein cruised the streets looking for cigarette butts to fill his pipe with tobacco; Howard Hughes shut himself in the “germ-free” zone of his Beverly Hills Hotel suite; Robert Schumann credited his musical compositions as being dictated to him by the ghosts of Beethoven and other dead musical geniuses, and Charles Dickens fought off imaginary street urchins. The list can go on forever.

Currently, we have such creative luminaries as Dean Kamen, one of the world’s best known and successful entrepreneurs. Kamen has hundreds of patents in his name, and an island kingdom off the coast of Connecticut called North Dumpling. Kamen — along with his Ministers of Ice Cream, Brunch and Nepotism — presides over this strange little “country” that has seceded from the US and issues currency in units of pi. Pi, the mathematical unit; not pie, the apple goodness.

So, what is it that makes these folks so different? Well, for one thing, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Aristotle, more than 2,300 years ago, noticed that creativity and depression seem to go hand in hand. Personally, I’ve been saying for years that the reason we no longer have Shakespeares and Michaelangelos is because we discovered anti-depressants. But, I digress. An Italian criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, cataloged the behavior of creative geniuses more than a century ago in his book, The Man of Genius. Lombrosos attributied the artistic temperament to the same hereditary “degeneration” that marked violent criminals.

Scientific American reports that scientists have been exploring the connection between “creativity and eccentricity” with empirically validated measures. “To measure creativity, researchers may look at an individual’s record of creative achievements, his or her involvement in creative activities or ability to think creatively (for example, to come up with new uses for ordinary household items). To measure eccentricity, researchers often use scales that assess schizotypal personality.”

Are we saying that all creative people are schizophrenic?  Well, no… although lots of them have been. Think John Nash from A Beautiful Mind. Hell, we’ve even got TV shows now making schizophrenia look fun; have you watched Perception?

(Slight sidebar here. Having spent two years dating and dealing with someone with Schizophrenic hallucinations, as far as I know they are never cute, giant alligators who mime you the answers to puzzles like on Perception. If you are going to present an illness for popular consumption, at least be realistic with it.)

Schizotypal personality is not full blown schizophrenia. It presents in a wide variety of forms, “including magical thinking (fanciful ideas or paranormal beliefs, such as Schumann’s belief that Beethoven channeled music to him from the grave), unusual perceptual experiences (distortions in perception, such as Dickens’s belief that he was being followed by characters from his novels), social anhedonia (a preference for solitary activities—Emily Dickinson, Nikola Tesla and Isaac Newton, for example, favored work over socializing), and mild paranoia (unfounded feelings that people or objects in the environment may pose a threat, such as Hughes’s legendary distrust of others).”

Schizotypal personality is the little brother of schizotypal personality disorder, which is a clinical psychiatric condition. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists this disorder as one of a cluster that is “odd or eccentric.”  Really? “Odd” is a diagnosis now? SPD folks might believe in telepathy, might be socially inept, have strange speech patterns or just be “off” a bit.

Shelly Carson, the author of the SA article and associate professor at Harvard University’s psychology department, says we shouldn’t think that all folks with schizotypal personality have the disorder. Most of them are “high functioning, talented and intelligent. Many of my students at Harvard University, for example, score far above average on schizotypal scales, as well as on creativity and intelligence measures,” she said.

The article is rather long, and kinda dry in places, but the gist is this: a lot of creative folks are weird. They don’t fit into societal norms. They share some traits and aspects with people who have serious psychotic illnesses, like schizophrenia. And their minds are more agile, more flexible and see patterns in places where the rest of us don’t.

In fact, these “square pegs” as Carson calls them, are being highly sought after in the global market. “Many leading corporations—such as Coca Cola, DuPont, Citigroup and Humana—now have chief innovation officers on their leadership teams. Prestigious business schools—such as Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Yale—have added courses on creativity to their curricula. And Fortune 500 companies, including PepsiCo, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Aetna and Marriott, now routinely put employees through creativity training programs. Trainers in these classes use a variety of tools and techniques to help noneccentrics open their minds to “out of the box” thoughts and stimuli that might otherwise be ignored or suppressed.”

The take away message? There may be fewer artistic, creative, innovative weirdos out there than in past times, but today’s world is starting to realize what an asset they are.

Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

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