Written by Sheridan Scott – Artwork by Zena Meighan – June 19, 2021
Have you ever been tempted to cave to temptation and slice off your ear? Or maybe you’re dying to experience the robust flavor of yellow paint? Personally, I’ve only ever eaten yellow playdough, unlike our friend Vincent Van Gogh (a Dutch artist). Van Gogh was an irritable alcoholic, diagnosed with “a sort of epilepsy with hallucinations and episodes of agitation and confusion provoked by alcoholic excess” (Hemphill, 1961, p. 28). Arguably, his alcohol dependence stemmed from an inability to manage emotional extremities, as he once said, “If the storm within gets too loud, I take a glass more to stun myself” (Blumer, 2002). Despite his inner turbulence, Van Gogh created masterpieces that will continue to awe generations. Notably, he created more self-portraits than the average artist, several of which illustrate his distress and unease. His self-portrait that stands apart from the rest, however, showcases Van Gogh with a pipe and a bandaged ear. This portrait is unique not only for obvious ear-related reasons but also because, for once, he appears tranquil (Hemphill, 1961, p. 32).
Van Gogh is far from the only renowned artist who is also known for their madness. While there are several like him, Louis Wain (an English artist) sticks out most in my mind. Admittedly, it’s probably because of my similar obsession with cats. When Wain’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age, he, naturally, bought her a lovely cat named Peter. Drawing cats, both to raise his wife’s spirits and manage his own feelings of despair, became his new obsession. His earlier drawings were more realistic representations, quite the opposite of his later. Wain’s life took a turn for the worse when his adored wife Emily died, later followed by his sister and adorable cat, Peter. As Wain’s life changed, so did his paintings. No longer realistic, his most recent paintings depict cats (still an obsession but can you blame him?) in elaborate, abstract forms. In later years, Wain suffered bouts of paranoia and psychosis and was institutionalized up until his death, although he never ceased painting his beloved cats (Damiani, S., & Fusar-Poli, L., 2018).
Since so many great artists and writers suffer from mental illnesses, we are led to wonder whether the term “mad artist” is scientifically backed. Signs of tribulations and illness exude from masterpieces, but does this imply cognitive disinhibition improves artistic cognition? I present to you: the inverted U. Picture an arch that resembles the great American fast food chain, McDonald’s original logo. The x-axis signifies the degree of top-down control, ranging from normal to defocused to impaired; and the y-axis represents someone’s degree of originality. Before jumping ahead, let’s talk about top-down control, particularly top-down dysfunction. Top-down control refers to how knowledge and expectations impact informational processing. Individuals who exhibit top-down dysfunction (fronto-striatal dysfunction) exhibit a variety of behaviors: poor inhibition, latent disinhibition, distractibility, and impulsivity. Connecting the dots, you notice these behaviors persist in a wide array of mental disorders, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance abuse, and more (Abraham, 2014). Now, let’s re-examine that McDonald’s logo. Individuals who exhibit top-down dysfunction fall under the defocused or impaired part of the curve. What this means is that moderate levels of top-down dysfunction are associated with a far greater degree of creativity, while impaired or debilitating levels are associated with a below average degree of creativity (Abraham, 2014).
A key take-away: if you or a loved one struggles with top-down dysfunction, buy an easel or grab a pen. Let the “madness” make some magic.
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