We’re captivated by the idea of the troubled genius. But is it a fiction?
Nancy Andreasen is not a smooth performer-of-ideas in the TED vein, the sort who roams the stage wirelessly mic’d, dispensing wisdom with Broadway-caliber aplomb. She does it old school, podium and PowerPoint, describing her research as she clicks through slides. The 400 or so people gathered for a mid-afternoon session of this summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival were drawn by the promise of learning “The Secrets of the Creative Brain” from Andreasen, a literary scholar turned psychiatrist and neuroscientist, winner of the National Science Medal, and author of a landmark study that found that eight out of 10 writers had experienced some form of mental illness during their lives. When the study was published in 1987, it was taken as scientific confirmation that there is indeed a link between creativity and mental illness, that most of our geniuses are fragile, moody, and perhaps a bit mad.