By Emma Clark Gratton
‘Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity’, wrote TS Eliot. But modern research shows the relationship is much more complicated.
The stereotype of the tortured artist battling internal demons is much older than the controlled study. Aristotle declared that ‘No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness’ and Lord Byron wrote frankly, ‘We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched’.
But in recent years science has sought to test the theory that artists tend to be emotionally sensitive, introverted and anxious and to identify the ways in which personality and mental health can help or hinder creative production..
The results have been somewhat reassuring for artists raised on Eliot’s view that anxiety was a necessary accompaniment to creative work. There is no clear and necessary correlation between anxiety and creativity that stands out from the range of studies.
We do know that artists are more likely to have major depression, particularly bipolar disorder.
But bipolar affects a relatively small proportion of the population – about 3% – while about 14% of people will have an anxiety disorder in any 12-month period and many more will experience minor anxiety in a way which affects their behaviour and choices.
Defining whether those people most likely to have anxiety are more or less likely also those most likely to be creative – and whether displaying symptoms of anxiety correlates with markers of creativity is a much more difficult challenge for researchers.
Different studies have shown different effects on creativity from anxiety, some positive and some negative.
ANXIETY MIGHT PREVENT EXPERIMENTATION
US researchers Paul Silvia and Nathan Kimbrel measured creative markers including divergent thinking, creative self-concept and creative achievement against depression and anxiety symptoms and found statistically small effects, which were generally negative.
That means people with high levels of social anxiety are marginally less likely to be creative. The researchers suggest this is because anxious people are less likely to try new things.
‘Creative behavior, viewed broadly, is appetitive and approach-oriented: creative people seek out people and activities that afford novel, unusual, and complex behaviors. People who find behavioral novelty and variability rewarding will have a motivational architecture that promotes approaching new, unusual things.
‘In contrast… anxiety would be expected to inhibit appetitive and novelty-seeking behavior.’
ANXIETY MIGHT MOTIVATE YOU
On the other hand people who are prone to overthinking and worry can access deep insights. While a few rare artists can spontaneously produce brilliant work, many arrive at their final inspired result after hours spent obsessing and overthinking the concept, refining and yes, worrying. Diving below the surface of the human experience uncovers emotional and thought-provoking concepts that would remain buried if not for the artist’s neurotic and anxious tendencies.
A small study published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences last year found neuroticism can sometimes facilitate creativity. Lead researcher Adam Perkins, an expert in neurobiology at King’s College, London, said a degree of anxiety could be a motivator for creative thinking.
‘In a sense, worry is the mother of invention. When you think about it, it makes sense. Many of our greatest breakthroughs through the years were a result of worry. Nuclear power? Worry over energy. Advanced weapons? Worry of invasion. Medical breakthroughs? Worry over illness and death,’ he told ArtsHub.
‘Cheerful, happy-go-lucky people by definition do not brood about problems and so must be at a disadvantage when problem-solving compared to a more neurotic person.’
ANXIETY MIGHT DAMAGE PERFORMANCE
While worry is linked to finding creative solutions, the unhappiness it causes can have a negative impact on the brain’s ability to think creatively.
Dr Margaret Osborne is a research fellow and lecturer at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences at The University of Melbourne. She specialises in performance science and investigates how psychological techniques can improve musicians’ capacity to cope with performance anxiety and optimize performance.
‘My initial take on this concept is that anxiety in fact limits creativity, rather than enhances it. This has a lot to do with brain waves – there is recent research which shows that higher frequency beta brain waves, or what I like to call the ‘busy bee’ state, which is associated with stress and higher anxiety, actually hinders the ability to be creative,’ Osborne said.
‘An ideal creative state is the alpha state, when the brain waves are at seven to 14 hertz a second. This can be triggered by slow repetitive movements such as running or riding a bike. Mozart came up with compositions while riding a rocking train. The time when artists are being most creative, for example, when musicians are playing in an orchestra, is when the brain is in a low beta or alpha state.
‘Theta waves occur during REM sleep, light meditation or deep relaxation. This is why there is a correlation between meditation and creativity, as deep relaxation allows the brain to enter an alpha or theta state.’
ANXIETY MIGHT GIVE YOU SPACE TO DEVELOP
Social anxiety and introversion might appear to be negatives, particularly for performing artists. But ironically Osborne said that the kind of anxiety that drives people away from constant human contact could be valuable for artists because it helped them sit in the internal quiet space needed to develop and prepare.
‘There is some evidence that there are many introverts found in performing or creative arts. The performance aspect of playing music is only the end result of lots of solitary time spent practicing, which extroverts can struggle with.’
In Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s 1844 treatise The Concept of Anxiety, he writes ‘Anxiety can just as well express itself by muteness as by a scream.’ He describes anxiety as the dizzying effect of boundless possibility, the paradox of choice. Existential psychologist Rollo May expanded on Kierkegaard’s concepts in his 1950 study, The Meaning of Anxiety:
‘Because it is possible to create … one has anxiety. One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever. Now creating, actualizing one’s possibilities, always involves negative as well as positive aspects.’
May’s description of the paradox of choice is echoed by Osbourne.
‘Being constantly bombarded with external stimuli inhibits our capability to attend to our own creative process. If we have 90% of our capability used up with choosing which cereal to buy, it leaves little room for creativity,’ she said.
ANXIETY CAN MAKE LIFE OVERWHELMING
At its extreme anxiety can be completely disabling, causing a degree of depression and pessimism which may even drive sufferers to suicide.
A US study reported that 70% of people with a history of suicide attempts have an anxiety disorder.
This is a particular concern in the arts where a recent study in Australia showed an increased risk of suicide among those working in the arts.
Read: Suicide risk increased by working in the arts
Source: http://wwwk/ .artshub.co.u