Friday, April 22, 2016

The Tortured Artist

The tortured artists. You know them. The brooding poet, the drug-addicted actress, the painter who cut off his own ear. This archetypal character may be regarded as only a stereotype, but there are plenty of real life examples throughout history of creatively inclined people who fit the description. You might even know one personally. And while not necessarily accurate, stereotypes generally come from somewhere. So is it coincidence? Or is there something substantial behind the idea that creativity and psychopathology are linked?

In an article published a few years back entitled Creativity, Psychopathology, and Emotion Processing: A Liberal Response Bias for Remembering Negative Information is Associated with Higher Creativity, Doctors Marina Drus, Aaron Kozbelt, and Robert R. Hughes sought to examine the extent to which more creative people process emotions and emotional information differently than less creative people. 

117 undergraduate students from the university of Boston participated in the study. They were first tested for creativity via the Creative Achievement Questionnaire (QAC) which measures self-reported lifetime accomplishments in creativity, and by two timed thinking tasks from the Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults (ATTA). The first task included verbalizing as many problems as they could think of that might arise if people were able to fly or walk on air, and the second task involved making as many pictures as possible out of nine triangles. Participants answers were measured for fluency (number of responses), originality (degree of novelty of responses), flexibility (difference between responses given), and elaboration (amount of detail of responses). All scores were combined to produce a final measure of "divergent thinking performance". Participants were then tested for emotional processing through the Try Meta Mood Scale, a self-report Likert survey designed to asses attention to emotions, clarity of emotions, and emotional repair of negative emotions. Lastly, the participants participated in a word association task in which they were shown 40 words one at a time (10 positive, 10 negative, 20 neutral) for 2 seconds each on a computer and were told to pay attention to them. They were then shown the words again along with 20 new words (5 positive, 5 negative, and 10 neutral) and were given 3 seconds to say whether or not they had previously seen each word. This part of the testing was designed to measure sensitivity to words by the degree of liberalness of the response threshold (a tendency to say yes when in doubt). That is, for example, a more liberal response threshold in association with negative words (more likely to say yes to negative words when uncertain) equates higher vulnerability to negative information. 

The results of the study found that self-reported high creative achievement levels and better performance on divergent thinking tasks (indicators of a creative individual) were associated with greater sensitivity to positive words and a more liberal response bias for negative words (which indicates an even greater sensitivity to negative words). So in conclusion, more creative individuals were shown to be more sensitive to positive information and especially sensitive to negative information in comparison to less creative individuals. These results indicate a potential for comorbidity between creativity and psychopathology... suggesting that the tortured artists persona may be more than a stereotype after all. 

Coming from a family where both creativity and mental illness are greatly prevalent, this article immediately grabbed my attention. How interesting it would be for these two characteristics I see co-occurring in multiple members of my extended family to be psychologically linked. All in all I found the study's methods of examination extremely interesting and highly creative. Through the use of three different tests, tweaked slightly to fit their specific needs, the scientists who conducted this study thoroughly evaluated participants' creativity levels and sensitivities to emotional information, generating fairly quantitative results about aspects of personality that aren't easy to study. 

Source (VT Libraries):

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