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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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Poetry is pareidolia plus synesthesia. Good poetry is a Turing test. More exorbitantly grant-funded studies are needed, or ask Google-X.

  • AnneS

    An insightful and honest reflection on the connection between poetry and mental illness by American poet Joshua Mehigan:
    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/242324

    A frightening and poignant narrative poem by the same author, about a man having a psychotic break:
    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/245222

  • ejhaskins

    Depends on the poetry, I think.
    *Real* poetry that scans and rhymes is just a form of music. This of course includes ‘folk music’ like limericks :-)
    When you get to stuff like the above (jumbled words with no rhyme, rhythm OR verbal meaning) it is surely a significant sign of psychosis. Just putting dysfunctional prose into short bits separated by a ‘return’ does not make poetry.

    • feloniousgrammar

      Hmmm. I detest rhyming poetry (it sounds like lyrics and nursery rhymes to me, but I can’t say that there isn’t a lot of great poetry that rhymes— I just have a thing about it), and I would say that ambiguity is a necessary element to most great poetry.

      There is rhythm in the above poem, it’s jazz.

      • Stephanie Weisend

        But it is a rhyming poem, full of imperfect, internal, and other types of rhyme and poetic devices. It is free verse, yet lyrical. It doesn’t stray to far from the metered path.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

          I don’t know much about poetry but I love “The Deer”.

          When Christian Ward stole it, he submitted it for a poetry prize and “he” won – deservedly so in my opinion but the credit should have gone to Mort.

          • Stephanie Weisend

            Yes, I agree.

  • Overburdened_Planet

    “Could it be that poets, having internalized the ‘mad genius’ archetype, are more prone to describe themselves in those terms?”

    Could it be that 294 self-reported mental illnesses were also self diagnosed?

    Why no mention whether the participants were asked if they had diagnosed themselves, or were diagnosed by professionals?

    Why isn’t that statistically significant?

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

    Okay, again, why isn’t that statistically significant?

    Meaning I’m waiting for a statistically significant point to the study.

    • feloniousgrammar

      Yes, this reminds me of NAMI’s “Great People with Mental Illness” list.

      http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=Helpline1&template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=4858

      Diagnosing dead people with mental illness is not that different from diagnosing oneself; especially in an atmosphere in which the figures that 1 out of 5, or 1 out of 4 people suffer from mental illness gets repeated ad nauseum, and not laughed at, for some reason.

      It would stand to reason that artists suffering from what could reasonably be called mental illness are much less likely to be successful than artists who should not be identified as such. Mental illness has a tendency to thwart success. Do poets commit suicide at a rate higher than the general population, or higher than psychiatrists?

      • Overburdened_Planet

        That’s an interesting list, and your questions inspired some thoughts and research that I found very interesting as it depends on how we frame the question(s), and who’s doing the research.

        As to your list, (and more of a rhetorical question): Did Lincoln grow up with depression; develop it while under stress while in office, or while dealing with his wife’s extreme depression?

        As to writers and other artists, does creativity lead to altered states of consciousness, or by obsessing on their craft, do they succumb to negative vs. positive stress? (There’s more on this later from one study below).

        I like to write, and knowing when to stop re-reading, editing, and finally stop writing, it can be stressful even though it starts out as enjoyable, the search for understanding, analyzing the subject, and possibly learning something about myself, but I’ve also had to learn to weigh the pros and cons and let go; even then, certain topics stay on my mind and it can take time to focus on the next topic so we have to distract ourselves from one obsession, sometimes with another.

        Another thought. To bring forth our understanding of humanity and suffering, must we experience it for ourselves? Are these examples of people who were introverted and introspective, in their head more than extroverts would be? I don’t believe extroverts are as focused on pain or self-reflection as much as introverts are, but I could be wrong.

        And something reminded me of philosophers. Were they susceptible to depression? I’ve collected nearly 50 pages of quotes by famous people on philosophy, science, religion, politics, mathematics, and relationships, among other thoughts.

        Sometimes I’ll post quotes online by theme, and it’s amazing to learn so much in such a short and condensed package, and Stanford’s website on philosophy, you can take one subject, Truth for example, and after reading, wonder what did you learn, did you understand, can you convey your understanding to others, can you answer questions on Truth, debate others, know how Truth applies to your own life, and can you spend the rest of your life focused on philosophy without experiencing any anxieties about the meaning of life, language and linguistics?

        Language is a virus from outer space.
        ― William S. Burroughs

        Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.

        Language disguises thought…The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language… Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry.

        Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it.
        ― Ludwig Wittgenstein

        The linguistic turn has insisted that truths are textual; that the way we see the world is ‘always already’ infected by language.
        ― Maggie MacLure

        Because we are creatures infected by language, and because language shapes how we come to interpret reality, we bear the burden of our words.
        ― Richard Metzger

        Back to poets, I think part of their overall problem is mental and emotional exhaustion where these famous people might have benefited from a shift in perspective, taking long breaks from their craft and other responsibilities, and who knows how meds and talk therapy would have affected their lives, and how it would have affected their creativity, good or bad?

        And I just thought that artists’ works aren’t going to be understood in the exact same way that they intended, which to me is fine, I like my own interpretations and think that it’s natural to open or expound upon any creation, and if I created something that was misinterpreted but sounded better, I would say this is what I was thinking, but I like your ideas better.

        Now imagine if an artist desperately wanted their work to be understood, but on their own terms, how they would feel when others wanted to see them differently. I think of music lyrics. Who knows what was meant unless the artist tells us? We could be right, but in my experience, I’ve I misheard lyrics (pre-Internet or lacking access to written lyrics) and learned this years after taking a music appreciation class, I made many mistakes, then there’s interpretation.

        I was doing research on the meaning of one album, and I found two different interpretations by critics, so who is right, so without asking the artist, we might never know the truth but some artists might think critics arrogant for trying.

        And I think the study had too small a sample size, and I found a much more comprehensive breakdown of factors in other studies below that complicate the questions further.

        http://www.insidermonkey.com/blog/the-10-highest-suicide-rates-by-profession-331520/?singlepage=1
        10/11/14
        “There are lots of factors which, combined, can lead to suicide: economic decline, unemployment, climate conditions, mental illness, stress… Closely connected to this last factor is occupation.

        [Also] gender, racial factors, industries and occupations: “As for African American women, the occupations with the highest suicide rates are: protective service jobs, sales representatives and packaging serving operations. On the other hand, African American men are more likely to commit suicide if they happen to be detectives, police officers, operators of furnaces or electricians.”

        If there were 10,000 detectives, but only 10 furnace operators in the study, I assume researchers used a per-capita rate assessment, but at some point the disparity must dilute or bias the analysis, and in the extreme, if there’s only one furnace operator that committed suicide, as compared to 100 detectives, what’s this one person’s backstory?

        It can also depend on where you live:
        http://www.insidermonkey.com/blog/10-states-with-the-highest-suicide-rates-most-depressing-and-suicidal-states-1261/

        And here’s a more comprehensive list, by profession (white males only):
        http://www.newhealthguide.org/Highest-Suicide-Rate-By-Profession.html

        As to psychiatrists:
        http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1588/what-occupation-has-the-highest-suicide-rate
        “A study of 24 states reported data on causes of death by occupation, for people ages 20 to 64, from 1984 to 1988, and came up with physicians, health aides, and “food batchmakers” as the three highest. Food batchmakers are at the top but only by a small (statistically insignificant) margin. Psychiatrists weren’t reported separately from other physicians.”

        As to poets:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Poets_who_committed_suicide
        “This category is for all poets who are known to have taken their own lives. Those poets whose presumed suicide remains in dispute (or whose manner of death suggests suicide, but is otherwise ambiguous) are to be placed in a subcategory.”
        [Except no subcategory found]

        As to poets by gender:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylvia_Plath_effect
        “Kaufman’s work further demonstrated that female poets were more likely to suffer from mental illness than any other class of writers. In addition, female poets were more likely to be mentally ill than other eminent women, such as politicians, actresses, and artists.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylvia_Plath_effect#Supporting_evidence
        In Study One, 1,629 writers were analyzed for signs of mental illness. Female poets were found to be significantly more likely to suffer from mental illness than female fiction writers or male writers of any type. Study Two extended the analysis to 520 eminent women (poets, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, visual artists, politicians, and actresses), and again found the poets to be significantly more likely to experience mental illness.

        In another study performed by the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, female writers were found to be more likely to suffer not only from mood disorders, but also from panic attacks, general anxiety, drug abuse, and eating disorders. The rates of multiple mental disorders were also higher among these writers. Although it was not explored in depth, abuse during childhood (physical or sexual) also loomed as a possible contributor to psychological issues in adulthood. The cumulative psychopathology scores of subjects, their reported exposure to abuse during childhood, mental difficulties in their mothers, and the combined creativity scores of their parents represented significant predictors of their illnesses. The high rates of certain emotional disorders in female writers suggested a direct relationship between creativity and psychopathology, but the relationships were not clear-cut. As the results of the predictive analysis indicated, familial and environmental factors also appeared to play a role.”

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylvia_Plath_effect#Sex_differences
        “From early adolescence through adulthood, women are twice as likely as men to experience depression.”

        Then I wondered how many men and women participated in the study referenced here, and the link for “a new British study” http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9408142&fileId=S0033291714002670
        [111 men and 183 women]

        So if women are more likely to suffer psychopathology than men, and with the study having more women than men (62.24% women vs. 37.75% men), would that unfairly ‘weight’ the study? How can researchers justly compensate or adjust for those differences in psychological disorders by gender?

        Then there’s this:
        http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/10/study-writers-are-twice-as-likely-to-commit-suicide/263833/
        10/19/12
        Study: Writers Are Twice as Likely to Commit Suicide
        [Study of 1.2 million people, although no distinction was made between writers and poets, and source study is behind a paywall]

        http://thequantumlobechronicles.blogspot.com/2009/08/death-of-musician.html
        8/29/09
        The association between creativity and suicide

        Using suicide rates as a proxy for the prevalence of mental disorders in groups of artists, we investigated the percentage of deaths by suicide in a sample of 4,564 eminent artists who died in the 19th and 20th centuries. Of the sample, 2,259 were primarily involved in activities of a linguistic nature, e.g., poets and writers…A total of 59 suicides were observed in a sample of 3,093 people: this corresponds to a ratio of 1.90%. Suicides were 51 among men (ratio 1.75%) and 8 among women (ratio 4.30%) [MY NOTE: Fewer women noted here committed suicide compared to men, even though another study said women were twice as likely to suffer, but also I believe men are less likely to seek help, confide in others, use others to help them cope, as compared to women, and are more likely to associate their role in society with their accomplishments vs. their relationships as women do]. The comparison by profession indicates that poets and writers exceed the mean suicide ratio of the sample.

        Suicide among artists seems to have a peculiar pattern, clearly different from the pattern of the general population, wherein suicide risk is higher among men and older people. Adverse financial circumstances and the stress attributed to rejection of personal products may contribute to the specific risk of suicide among artists. The link between mental disorders, such as manic-depression, which imply a higher risk of suicide, and creativeness is discussed as a contributing factor.

        Finally, there are the various creative therapies designed in cases of depression (e.g. by encouraging the patient to paint or draw) to reactivate the nondominant hemisphere of the brain. Particularly in chronic or recurrent depressions this reactivation also serves to open up to the patient new perspectives for the solution of the problems that drive him into depression.”

        As to age averages:
        http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/24/books/going-early-into-that-good-night.html
        4/24/04

        “…study of 1,987 dead writers…tallied the average ages at death for prominent male and female novelists, poets, playwrights and nonfiction writers who were American (with some Canadians and Mexicans), Chinese, Turkish and Eastern European.

        Overall, poets lived an average of 62.2 years, compared with nonfiction writers, who lived the longest at 67.9 years. Playwrights lived an average of 63.4 years; novelists, 66 years. The differences between poetry and prose were pronounced among Americans, where poets lived an average of 66.2 years, and nonfiction writers lived an average of 72.7 years.”

        So feelings play a strong role in poetry, which must be more exhausting than other forms of prose, and as to living shorter lives, it’s interesting to speculate whether American poets living the shortest lives, was due to something in our culture, as compared to other cultures, and is that based on our unique sense of Individualism?

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  • Pancho

    A pity that the paper is behind a paywall. I would love to see the data. The subject is clearly very interesting.

    • http://www.goodreads.com JT Smith

      i’ve been mad for years. i don’t understand why some of us don’t embrace mental illness. is it because we cannot accept our weaknesses? as a writer of sorts, i wasn’t diagnosed with schizophrenia until after college. i don’t expect pity or sympathy. i have always been creative. i wish i had a platform to display my free verse. i have been considering blogs soon. next time if u encounter someone different than u, consider my words.

  • ohwilleke

    Ellen Forney, in “Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir (2012)” cites to a number of academic studies of the subject, and there seems to be pretty good evidence for it, especially in the case of bipolar.

  • templeruins

    Everybody would think they are if you left them to think about it for long enough.

  • Pingback: at least they think that they are. . . | Poetiosity()

  • Roberta West

    This may look like a poem but it reads more like poetic prose to me! As to the survey and connection between brain wavering and creativity, I’d say they are probably right because from my experience of poets and being one myself, a great deal of creativity comes when inspired by truama/drama of life. Interesting article and comments by readers, too.

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  • ohwilleke

    It is also worth noting that the association I have always heard about is between creativity and bipolar, which is strongly demonstrated, not between creativity and psychosis, which also includes schizophrenia, which has not had the same association with creative as born out by the data.

  • Tamra

    Uh oh…. No, seriously, I don’t think having unusual experiences makes one more prone to psychosis. It’s a little presumptive to assume unusual experiences are a bad sign. No one inside my head agrees with that assumption.

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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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