Creative people are crazy

February 25, 2009 By Paul Wagorn
Pablo Picasso - Self Portrait
Pablo Picasso - Self Portrait

When I was a child, a doctor once told me that he suspected that I might have attention deficit disorder – ADD (or ADHD as it’s now called).  He went on to say “..but, only a touch of it.  Basically enough to make you creative”. I suspect that he was joking at the time, but it always made me wonder.

I was reminded of this recently when I dug up a report based on research by Professor Arnold Ludwig of the University of Kentucky.

Dr. Ludwig studied over 1000 “original thinkers” in a wide array of professions – art, music, business, science, politics and sports. In his research spannig close to 10 years, he studied these people’s mental fitness, their chosen professions and the releationships between their mental health and career selection. What he found was interesting: Crazy people have jobs that rely on creativity.

The results from his study (“Method and Madness in the Arts and Sciences”) showed that:

  • 9 out of 10 poets studied had diagnosable mental disorders (!)
  • 77% of fiction writers had mental disorders
  • 74% of theater people
  • 73% of painters and other visual artists
  • 68% of musicians (which I think is dead accurate based on my own experience of being in bands!)

This is compared to 18 to 29% for sports, scientists and business people.

Many studies have shown higher rates of depression in creative people as well (how depressing!).

So, the question that begs to be asked is what is the causative relationship? Are creative people crazy, or are crazy people creative?  Dr. Ludwig says:

“Mental illness is not the price people pay for their creative gifts… creative people who are mentally ill find themselves, almost by default, in the arts rather than in business or the other sciences.”

Ok, so being creative doesn’t make us crazy…  Whew, we dodged that bullet. What this does mean, however, is that we may have to deal with more off-kilter-ness from our co-workers and professional relationships if we work in a creative field.

Tell us what you think – do you agree with Dr. Ludwig’s findings, or do you just think he’s crazy being creative?

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Reader Comments

Maybe the differ(a)nce between madness and normality is not that hard and fast as is supposed by late western civilization (whatever that means). In the past the creative talent had to literally go against the grain and so it was an uphill battle. It was not like the postmodern condition where for the first time in history you find young people opting for conservatism (which is sooooo boring). The indifference towards the mad, sick and slightly in-sane that you find today where at best they are put for life on drugs and at worst shut up in a lunatic asylum boinking off the walls in a straitjacket is a pathetic and truly soulless sight for sorry eyes. Wasn't it R.D.Laing who said somewhere that we are all rapists and murderers (and God knows what else) even in this clinically sterilized and static bank-like clockwork society of the contemporary age. Madness and creativity are kissing cousins that can't get enough of each other. Their surgical separation is not an easy task. Better to let nature do the healing than the psychiatrist's couch. The former hardens you with its elemental forces while the latter only makes you an obese specimen going round in circles.
Posted by shahzeb kazim on November 3, 2011

I'm a journalist, poet, creative writer, playwright, and basically anything you can think of that is associated with w o r d s. They are my best friends. I also sketch on occasion and take crazy-genius photographs & I concur, creative people are crazy, crazy people are creative. Whichever way works for you, works for me. I am currently working on a play and in my "crazy" mind, hard core inspiration only comes to me when I am in touch with spirits from an outside world. Yeah, I know it sounds koo-koo and I probably am...but I truly do believe that I was according to Lady Gaga "born this way!" With that being said, we (creative folk) can't help the way we are. It is what it is...we are who we are and let's hope we make magic with our creative gifts, inspire others, make people happy and try to stay as sane as we possible can.
Posted by Crealda on October 20, 2011

I have seen Temple at a couple of conferences and she is just wonderful. Her honesty is very refreshing and more effective than many other so called experts. I also come away from her presentations feeling inspired to learn more about Autism and do better.
Posted by Christopher Fuller on June 23, 2011

A wonderful movie I would highly recommend is "Temple Grandin". It is about an autistic woman who actually went on to revolutionize an industry ( I won't spoil it by telling you which one). She recently was a speaker at TED. She explains that autistic people just see the world in a different way and think a different way. Anyone interested in this subject will love this movie - Tammara Acerra
Posted by Tammara on June 3, 2011

So yeah thanks guys, i feel a little better now
Posted by Pensive on the subject on March 30, 2011

wow. Soooo i have just recently come to terms( out of denial) with the fact that i am a compulsive/ pathological liar, i have bad ADD i have bipolar disorder, have always suffered with depression. What has caused me the most turmoil is my fucking MESS with relationships like worse than anyone, so i think i might have borderline personality disorder too god knows. But this all makes sense. My father is a well acclaimed artist and hes bonkers and I'm insanely creative, im a writer, so hmmmm. Im 23 next month and have always promised myself that this is just temporary and that ill be superb in the next few months when i just stop doing what is deemed so wrong, and start doing whats right, but i have lost all mean of tust in myself. I have this unmistakable pattern of actions i commit that show me what i want to be and what i am are not only opposite but sanity seems unreachable and the whole thing seems out of my control. Ha and im left handed, Sundial. Ive been consciously not so much subconsciously (but who knows) trying to tolerate the fact that some of my disorders are permanent, no matter how much i deny it even now while im typing im saying to myself that it really isnt permanent but my research tells me otherwise. But what this article triggered in me is a good thing i think, see cause i have a massive self loathing problem, but if i had never been the least bit crazy, would i have ever been the least bit creative? Would i have been brilliantly creative? My creativity is one of my most solid traits I hold as safe haven for my ravenously ill judgemental psyche. And if being "normal" would make me alot more uncreative, it almost makes being me woth it. And Michael Sevilla i like your angle.
Posted by Pensive on the subject on March 30, 2011

the source of creativity and craziness is one and the same...a fault in the filtering process. while not exactly peaceful this chaos is an ideal ocean for catching big fish if you have the right equipment. most philosophers and poets have ridden the dangerous waves and believe me they have built out of the shipwrecked remains of their once stable lives the rafts that have kept them afloat. its all just a matter of thought management. or striking a delicate balance between selectivity and schizophrenia. open the floodgates too much and u have a full-fledged nervous disorder on your hands. use drugs and you bump off the creative activity. maybe a mystic and a schizophrenic differ only in the fact that the mystic never says that he is a schizophrenic and hence is never labeled in the first place.
Posted by dildar dewan on May 6, 2010

All crazy people definitely want this to be true! I'm raining my hand for sure ;-)
Posted by Preeti Edul on April 22, 2010

thanks for your share `` and
I think these numbers are crap, only 18% of businessmen have mental disorders? BS. Narcissistic Personality Disorder mixed in with control issues is a REQUIREMENT for management too !i love umbrellasvery much
Posted by umbrellas on March 27, 2010

he may be right but i think creative people are not crazy but "people" think thry are crazy simply because they are creating new ideas which seems abnormal for them because they do not nknow what deas "creativity" mean.
Posted by zina on December 7, 2009

"No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness." ~ Aristotle.

Truth is eternal.
Posted by Barking Unicorn, Denver, CO on July 11, 2009

I think these numbers are crap, only 18% of businessmen have mental disorders? BS. Narcissistic Personality Disorder mixed in with control issues is a REQUIREMENT for management.
Posted by Joe McBean on July 10, 2009

it is seen in music as well, for example amadeus and syd barrett. 2 musicians so original and talented for their time that it was almost as if their brains couldn't handle it. the result was a downward spiral into 'madness'.

i'm around a lot of creative people all the time. i've concluded that everyone in the world is a bit crazy, creative people's crazy is just far more interesting to be around.
Posted by dan on February 26, 2009

The percentage for bloggers is probably 98%, with the other 2% being the ones who are too boring to read. (Spoken as a blogger myself, mind.)
Posted by Penguin Pete on February 25, 2009

Another angle: creative people are "crazy" because of the way they see the world - different/uniquely than non-creative people. Perhaps it is this view point, the inferences, the connections, etc... that lead others to think they are crazy when all they are doing is seeing something (or creating something) that others cannot possibly contrive until once the process is done.
Posted by Michael Sevilla on February 25, 2009

Step through the looking glass, have tea with Alice and Dr.Ludwig, give Frank Zappa a hug, and remember, as Jimmy said, People are Strange.
Posted by JOE on February 25, 2009

Interesting point - I think there are also more left handed people in the arts - and they are supposedly more "creative" too. Have you noticed that Obama is a lefty?
Posted by sundial on February 25, 2009

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