Inherited trait could link mental illness and creativity
Published 14/07/2014 | 02:30
Most of us know the story of the man who went to his doctor because he was feeling sad. The doctor replied "The circus is in town. Go and see Coco the Clown. He makes everybody laugh". The man replied "But I am Coco the Clown". The image of the comic buffoon on the outside, whose heart is breaking inside, is a very powerful one.
In recent years comedians have been speaking freely about their mental illness. Most famously, Ruby Wax devoted whole shows to it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and toured around Britain with it subsequently.
It was both poignant and very amusing and sold to packed houses. More recently Stephen Fry and Jack Dee have spoken about struggles as did Kenneth Williams and Spike Milligan. But for Milligan and Williams it was at a time when there was a taboo around mental illness.
The association between creativity and mental illness has been widely iterated in books, magazines and television. The depressive swings of painters like Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin resulted in some of their best works while composers like Schumann captured their depression in their music.
Many of these early accounts of "mad geniuses" were based on anecdote and individual reports. In recent years, further and more solid information has been gleaned from empirical studies.
For example my colleague Simon Kyaga led a team at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden who examined the occupations of nearly 1.2 million Swedes who were registered in the national database with mental illness. The conditions ranged from schizophrenia to anxiety.
He found that those working in the creative areas, such as dancers, photographers, writers and so on were 8pc more likely to have bipolar disorder compared to other occupations.
For writers, specifically, the figure was 121pc higher than the general population, while the risk of suicide was 50pc higher. In addition their relatives were at increased risk of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism and anorexia nervosa.
It is suggested that there may be a common inherited trait that fosters both creativity and a range of mental illness.
Despite the popular inquisitiveness and academic interest in this, and the relatively large number of studies focused on creativity and mental illness, little has been written about comedians.
Perhaps it is assumed that buffoonery isn't the same as creativity and so is unworthy of study - although most comedians nowadays do not use slapstick but instead draw on language, improvisation and clever riposte as their tools.
In what appears to be the first study of its kind, a group of researchers, headed by Victoria Ando of Oxford University's Department of Experimental Psychology, studied more than 500 comedians.
They were compared with a group of 300 actors and the results were recently published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. An online questionnaire measuring a range of personality traits in four domains was completed.
The broad areas examined were termed "unusual experiences" (e.g. belief in telepathy, paranormal experiences etc), "disorganised thinking" (distractibility and problems focussing), "introvertive anhedonia" (an absence of pleasure from social encounters including avoidance of intimacy) and "impulsive non-conformity" (a tendency to antisocial and unpredictable behaviour).
The comedians were accessed online through comedians clubs and associations in the UK, USA and Australia. Actors were likewise found through online societies.
The comedians scored highly in all four domains and especially in "introvertive anhedonia" and "impulsive non-conformity".
These are polar opposites of each other and represent a bipolar dimension that is less overt than full-blown bipolar disorder.
It is similar to moodiness and what was called cyclothymia in the past. Coupled with high scores on the other two scales representing unusual beliefs and distractibility, the authors suggest that it is not surprising that this combination could produce comedic performance.
One of the theories of humour is that it arises when disparate ideas are juxtaposed incongruously. So ideas are seen in new ways and illogical ideas become connected.
The zany humour of some comedians is often a reminder of this when we are jolted from laughter into seeing the bizarreness of the performance. The Pythons humour is such an example.
A word of caution is required also. Not all comedians possess these traits. Those that do may be at risk of mental illness and this explains the higher risk observed in some well-known personalities mentioned above.
It is sobering to realise that some of the comics we see and enjoy may themselves be vulnerable.
They may seem surfacely to live golden lives, exuding fun and excitement, seeing humour in the ridiculous and possessing an ability to make light of grave issues. Nothing could be further from the truth, and death by suicide of more than one comic personality is a testimony to that.
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