History is filled with wonderfully creative individuals who came to tragic ends. It’s so common to hear of artists struggling with alcohol, drugs or mental illness and the link between the two seems almost undeniable. But does creativity really correlate with addiction or mental health issues like depression or bipolar disorder? Is there a scientific connection? Or is it just a coincidence?
Surprisingly, the answer is both yes and no!
Vincent Van Gogh, Celebrities And Mental Illness
Some famous artists were thought to be more brilliant because of their use of substances like absinthe, opium or psychedelics, while the public witnessed the same drugs dull the genius of others. Others question whether a painter like Vincent van Gogh would have been able to generate the same work if his suspected mental illness had been diagnosed and treated. Would his gift have shriveled as his health improved, or would treatment have allowed him to reach new heights of creativity and productivity?
It seems to be a particular breed of person who succumbs to addiction, most recently exemplified by the late singer Amy Winehouse. She joins the “27 Club” of rock stars who died, via addictive behavior, too young—Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. Nor is it limited to the rock-and-roll lifestyle—Thomas de Quincey invented the modern addiction memoir with “confessions of an English opium eater” in 1821. In fact, the list of addicts often overlaps with the giants of culture.
Many people believe that pursuing treatment for an addiction or mental health issue will make you less creative — but it just isn’t true. Sobriety or balanced mental health does not change your genetics, and how creative you are is a genetic trait. Those in recovery usually find their mind is clearer, making them better able to respond to and follow through on their natural creative impulses. In contrast, long-term substance use can permanently damage creativity — extended drug use can affect the brain in ways that may not be completely recoverable including permanent changes in the individuals brain, even after years of abstinence or sobriety.
There may not be a direct link between substance abuse/addiction or mental illness and creativity, but science hints at a link between addiction and traits that are a prerequisite for creativity.
Genetics And Addiction
Addiction often runs in families, but studies have shown that only 40-60% of a predisposition to addiction is genetically determined. A family history is no guarantee that anyone will have a problem later on, and there is no single addiction gene. There are several genes involved in genetic addiction risk and experts still haven’t identified all of them. This means that as time goes by, new scientific discoveries will happen, furthering our understanding of addiction.
Stress is a biological phenomenon. We know the intermediate steps. You argue or you’re fighting off an infection and your body releases stress hormones, which bind to receptors in the brain pleasure circuitry that ultimately result in cravings. We know how stress causes craving…. The two biggest factors are genetics and stress.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps people remember the pleasure of an experience so they repeat it over and over again to receive the same pleasure. Drugs or alcohol often artificially boost dopamine levels in the brain so that the brain makes less naturally, which then causes people to use drugs or alcohol more frequently to feel the same effects (known as an increase in tolerance). A low-level dopamine system can make an individual more likely to misuse substances and to engage in high risk, compulsive behavior. While these aren’t necessarily creative behaviors, they are starting points that can lead to creativity.
You don’t become addicted because you feel pleasure strongly. On the contrary, addicts seem to want it more but like it less. They feel pleasures more weakly and are more likely to try more to achieve more. This “blunted dopamine” hypothesis is supported by brain-imaging studies and biochemistry tests in rats and monkeys. It also holds for addictions to food, sex and gambling. The D2 gene and others are ones that can influence likelihood of addiction however as more research is done, other genes may become more prominent.
Even if you have a predisposition to addiction, you can actively choose not to use although you may experience cravings or urges. Surrounding yourself with accountability from yourself and others, as well as a clean/sober community can help you stay both creative and clean. If you do find yourself struggling with addiction or mental health issues, treatment is readily available.
Is there a link between addiction and other human attributes we might value?
There have been some studies in Scandinavia associating personality traits with the genetics of D2 receptors. If you carry these variants that turn down dopamine, you become more socially desirable. There is something charismatic about risk-takers.
Does curing the addiction eliminate the creativity?
Usually not. When you cure the addiction, you’re not changing your genes. People are in recovery for life…. There is always a tremendous risk of relapse. Successful recovering addicts adopt behavioral strategies that allow you to resist or reduce cravings and creativity can be one of those strategies.
Mental Health & Addiction Help
If you find yourself struggling with a substance addiction, treatment is available! Contact information for your nearest drug and alcohol service and GP practice (if you do not already have one) can be found on our help and support page.