Are Poetry and Psychosis Linked?

By Neuroskeptic | December 11, 2014 6:37 am

Is there a relationship between poetry and psychosis?

writing_poetryThe idea that ‘genius’ is just one step removed from ‘madness’ is a venerable one, and psychiatrists and psychologists have spent a great (perhaps an inordinate) amount of time looking for correlations between mental illness and creativity.

Now a new British study has examined whether poets exhibit more traits of psychosis than other people. One of the authors is a published poet, Helen Mort.

The researchers recruited 294 poets in an anonymous online survey; 92% of them had published their work. On the O-LIFE questionnaire, a self-report measure of psychotic symptoms, the poets scored above average on the “Unusual Experiences”, “Cognitive Disorganization” and “Impulsive Nonconformity” traits.

Furthermore, poets who described their work as  ‘avant-garde’ scored even higher on “Unusual Experiences” and on a questionnaire of mood disorder symptoms.

Rates of self-reported mental illnesses were also high

two poets (0.7%) reported schizophrenia, 15 reported bipolar disorder (5.1%), 152 reported depression (51.7%) and 80 reported anxiety disorder (27.2%).

Although actually these percentages are not that much higher than we see in the general population.

So it seems as though poets are more prone to psychosis – or at least, they think that they are. All of the traits were self-reported. Could it be that poets, having internalized the ‘mad genius’ archetype, are more prone to describe themselves in those terms?

Anyway. If you lack your own spark of genius, you can always make a career in poetry by stealing someone else’s. Helen Mort, in fact, was a victim of a poetry plagiarist just last year. The culprit, one Christian Ward, took one of Mort’s poems, The Deer, edited it slightly, and passed it off as his own work. It later emerged that Ward had done this several times before. I wonder if Ward was included in this survey…?

Here’s The Deer by Helen Mort:

The deer my mother swears to God we never saw,
the ones that stepped between the trees
on pound-coin-coloured hooves,
I’d bring them up each teatime in the holidays

and they were brighter every time I did;
more supple than the otters we waited for
at Ullapool, more graceful than the kingfisher
that darned the river south of Rannoch Moor.

Five years on, in that same house, I rose
for water in the middle of the night and watched
my mother at the window, looking out
to where the forest lapped the garden’s edge.

From where she stood, I saw them stealing
through the pines and they must have been closer
than before, because I had no memory
of those fish-bone ribs, that ragged fur,
their eyes, like hers, that flickered back
towards whatever followed them.

ResearchBlogging.orgMason, O., Mort, H., & Woo, J. (2014). Research Letter: Investigating psychotic traits in poets Psychological Medicine, 1-3 DOI: 10.1017/S0033291714002670

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Neuroskeptic

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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