I was inspired this week by the passing of Robin Williams, a comedian whose adroit repartee, clever improvisation, and physical humor touched many lives throughout his career. Williams seems the classic case of the brilliant artist plagued by darkness: he suffered from depression, alcoholism and drug addiction for many years before taking his own life.
We certainly have the idea in our society that brilliance—be it comedic, artistic, or scientific—comes at the cost of happiness. At least anecdotally, many famous individuals suffered bouts of depression or anxiety at one time in their lives and it’s thought that rates of mental illness are 8-10 times higher in writers and artists than in the general population. But does the science of emotion actually bear out the idea that negativity breeds creativity? It turns out, the findings are mixed.
On the one hand, there is evidence that positive, not negative, emotions make you more creative by allowing you to think outside the box. Classic psychology studies reveal that participants who feel positive after watching a funny movie or receiving a gift are more creative on tasks that require broad thinking. One such test is the Remote Associations Test, and it works like this: Participants are given a list of three words and have to think up a fourth that links them all. For instance, they might read, “stool,” “powder,” “ball,” and have to think up a fourth word that is related to them (the answer is “foot”). Positive emotions help you become more creative because they broaden your thoughts, allowing you to see more of the forest and fewer of the individual trees. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that negativity can breed creativity too, particularly for people prone to depression. A study by Modupe Akinola and Wendy Mendes found that negative emotions caused individuals to produce more creative art; this was particularly the case for individuals with a biological vulnerability to depression. The authors first measured participants’ pre-existing levels of a steroid that has been linked to depression called dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate. (To be clear, merely possessing a biological trait that is linked to depression doesn’t mean you’ll definitely experience depression in your lifetime. Typically you need to have a biological predisposition plus experience a stressful environment to develop clinical depression. See more here.) The authors then caused participants to experience negative, positive, or neutral feelings by giving them unkind, supportive, or no feedback on a mock job interview. Finally, participants were asked to make an artistic collage and real artists later judged the collages for their level of creativity. The authors found that not only did participants in the negative emotion condition produce more creative collages, but that people who had a vulnerability to depression produced the most brilliant work of all when they were feeling negative.
These findings suggest that sadly, darkness can breed creativity. Our hope for the future is that by discovering the links between emotion, creative brilliance, and mental illness, the science of emotion might be better able to help the next generation of Robin Williamses.*
*Sixteen million Americans report symptoms of clinical depression a year and depression is a condition that can be treated. If you are in the United States, and know someone who is severely depressed and might be contemplating suicide, please get in touch with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org 1-800-273-TALK. Many places in the world have similar national hotlines and resources.