The Sweet Thorn of Madness in Creativity

Nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtura dementiae fuit.
[There has not been any great talent without an element of madness.]

I’m not sure whether I agree with Seneca. I recently slept 3 hours* one night and 5 the next, providing me in two days what I normally sleep in a night. Normally not a problem, but combined with high levels of stress in both work and private life at the same time, it left me with next to none emotional and mental resources.

But boy did the ideas flow.

They came pouring about different subjects in different places — and especially when I took a bath. Filled about 20 notepad pages and a couple of notes entries on my iPhone (waterproof casing has its advantages). As far as I can tell, many are quite good, i.e., in contrast to bad ideas they need little additional work.

While it’s not madness (and it might be totally accidental and thus a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc), I think in its effect regarding creativity it is close. And sure, real mental illness — esp. (manic-)depression, or even worse, schizophrenia — woaw, no thank you. Luckily, I don’t think I am mad, but I don’t know whether others will outvote me on this.** But in its effects I think it’s close to certain kinds of madness.

A flood of good ideas — isn’t that how creativity should be like?

When I had the idea to think about this during this idea storm (love the meta perspective), I came to a different conclusion. Yes, many people wish to be creative, as a character trait that is stable, that provides them with ingenious solutions to difficult problems or helps them come up with new products and markets. Just do it. The proverbial silver bullet. Quick, easy, goes off with a bang and devastating in its effects (if you’re a werewolf, if not and you survive it, you’re at least a bit richer).

But I also paid attention to how I felt during the outpouring of ideas.

First there was the anxiety to get it all down. The brain is racing ahead and jumping from topic to topic, and if I do not capture them immediately, they are left behind and I forget them. Later you’re in a different state and there is no way to retrace the steps and jumps. But capturing in that depleted, sleep deprived state is really hard. Like shortly before going to sleep or while doing other activities where anything else is aversive [xkcd comic]. You have to be committed and get it down fast. And you still lose a lot and you feel each loss.

It is not a pleasant state to be in.

Sure, if you are manic when you get all these ideas that might be different. There was a nice fictional description in a novel I once read***. It described how the person felt when his ideas came and how far he could jump ahead in complex physics problems during that time. But that was tempered by the cold fear of these episodes, of having to deal with the fallout of the things he also did during that time, and his self-medication to avoid these effects.

While you can’t argue with the results, the process is a walk through hell (with mania, hell comes after the trip).

Even worse, you might not feel like you are yourself in this state. Yes, ideas come pouring, they are just there. But did you really come up with them? Ignoring possible accidental plagiarism by forgetting the source, can you really feel accomplishment and pride if you feel that coming up with these ideas took no effort? Perhaps you feel it’s “something inside you” or “outside you” — but in any case, something “not you“? Detached and different from your “usual self”? The state certainly is, your behavior is also quite different.

And if it is something different and outside your control — how do you know that you can get into this state again? You might not want to, but the products certainly seem worthwhile. But what if you get the negative consequences of the process, but not the worthwhile ideas. You endure feeling wretched or create a lot of damage, yet you get nothing. And oftentimes you cannot simply stop and resume later. Even sleep deprived, try to fall asleep with a racing mind … and say hello to the downward spiral.

Yup, you can’t argue with the results and these might provoke envy. But the process, the possible lack of a feeling of accomplishment and control … that could evoke pity.

When Baudelaire said (no idea in which context):

Today I felt pass over me
A breath of wind from the wings of madness.
Charles Baudelaire

then I think, yup, these wings have their advantages. And no, despite the disadvantages, I would not look for cover or reach for the crossbow. But at least in the cases mentioned in this posting, there is a price to pay. And you pay it in any case, for a grueling ride or wrecking aftereffects — and an uncertain outcome.

But that was just one of the ideas during that phase (I leave you to judge). One day I have to read more about the established research in creativity and mental illness, but so far my fear that it might be like asking a centipede how it walks keeps me at bay.

Anyway, that’s my view on these brushes with “madness”.

What do you think?


* I wanted to finish “A Dance with Dragons” (fifth book of what is now produced as TV series “Game of Thrones”) before the series moves to far ahead. I hate spoilers. And I succeeded, at about 4 am on a Monday. But I had to get up at 7 am. Even worse, now I have traded in the risk of spoilers for the reality of cliffhangers. I’d say never start reading a series until the author has finished it, but with all these spoilers floating around (“Here’s a clip from the new Game of Thrones season” “Noooooooooo!”) … here censorship in the hands of the person being censored would make sense. But then again, how many people would prefer to build a virtual wall to avoid looking at all the misery?


“They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.”
Nathaniel Lee, on being consigned to a mental institution, circa 17th century.

*** I don’t have this quote written down. I read the book before I had a document scanner to digitize the books I own(ed). Instead, of keeping them digitally, I sold them for next to nothing. Damn you technological development, either too fast or too slow! 😉