Creativity and the Disparate Mind

Creativity and the Disparate Mind

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

Steve Jobs

The relationship between creativity, insanity and genius has long captivated philosophers, playwrights and poets. The idea of the mad artist, the tormented musician or the tortured poet continues to have a strong grip on the human imagination. What is it that draws our attention to the connection between creativity and insanity, or creativity and genius? Is it the drama that seems to accompany many of the lives of such individuals? Or are creativity, madness and genius all versions of the same thing? Perhaps it is in the way our minds work that we consider the outcome of creativity, what is produced, expressed or formed as genius or madness. Is it just our minds that form this distinction or a connection or both? Does a disparate mind exist within all of us?

The Webster dictionary defines disparate as, “being markedly distinct in quality or character, and containing or made up of fundamentally different and often incongruous elements.” Creativity has a very similar definition. According to, creativity is, “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc. As Steve Jobs noted creativity is, “simply connecting things.”

Popular culture has tended to glorify aberrant or erratic behaviour in artists. Over the years, artists like Vincent Van Gogh, legendary for cutting off his ear as well as producing astonishing paintings, have proved more captivating to the public than a more mild-mannered artist like Claude Monet. Public interest may be as much about the behaviour of the individual as the works of art created. Historically the idea of the “mad” artist has been so compelling that more studies tracking psychological imbalance in artists exists than for other professions. For instance, the composer Robert Schumann’s manic episodes during which he produced much of his music has received considerable notice, but few people would take seriously an attempt to analyze a baker’s mood swing and the resultant quality of the loaves of bread he makes, or anybody else using their own creativity on a daily basis. At the same time, research has revealed disproportionately high rates of mood disorders, particularly manic depression, or bipolar disorder, and chronic depression among creative people. Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, concluded in her study ”Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament” that among distinguished artists the rate of such depressive illnesses is 10 to 30 times as prevalent as the population at large.

Of course there are many gifted artists, writers and performers who do not pursue their craft while teetering on the edge of insanity and many more people who are not “artists” and are deeply creative. However, few who have studied the subject would argue that some form of instability is not associated with what we call extremely creative people. Is this association the case or do we need to look at creativity, instability, madness and genius in a different way?

Our minds are full of thoughts, beliefs and ideas that form our understanding of the world and influence our behaviour, and our choices. Perhaps instability is a characteristic of creativity, the creative energy that allows us to make connections between disparate ideas, and for some people this trait is much more pronounced or developed? Some people are more prone to making connections that border on the unknown or unseen. Is it their “instability” or their “creativity” that is central to making the connections between deeply disparate elements, ideas, beliefs etc. Perhaps, it is the degree of creativity, or the ways in which one manages/expresses/forms creative energy, that makes the difference in the outcome and how it is experienced by the creator/artist and others. The connections being made and expressed by an artist, what we call “art”, offer the viewer the unique opportunity to grow his or her understanding of the ideas presented.

According to Henning Beck, author of Scatterbrain: How the Mind’s Mistakes Make Humans Creative, Innovative, and Successful our brain is made up of a default mode network that allows us to daydream, to generate new ideas, to create, and of a decision-making network, that filters out our ideas and decisions about our daily life. Can we say that creativity is the energy of creation and that our brains form that energy into ideas and link them together? In some cases the brain’s default mode network overwhelms the decision-making network. Swings of emotion trigger the re-organizing of disparate thoughts into a new order forming the essence of creative genius or madness. The theory holds that a manic state of excitement in many ways simulates the ”high” of the creative process. However, not all geniuses and creative people have a mental or manic disorder.

Stress on the other hand is shown to be a creativity killer, as the brain switches to a crisis mode, increasing the level of concentration that diminishes creative thinking. Meditation and mindfulness teaching indirectly increase creativity by calming the individual and reducing stress. It should be noted that these activities do not directly increase one’s creative thinking because they do not engage the daydreaming process and our ability to connect new ideas.

There are countless techniques that are thought to get our creative juices flowing, such as brainstorming, design thinking, the morphological matrix and many others. These techniques attempt to steer our unregulated power of creativity into following a set of rules. Creativity, creative energy in its unconditioned state is “open”, full of potential; it is less bound by rules. When the individual expresses their creative energy, often by applying rules, it reduces or increases the potential for unexpected connections and outcomes. Perhaps the relationship between creativity, madness and genius is in the individual and in his or her application of “rules”, of preconceived ways of connecting ideas, of beliefs, of thoughts about one’s self.

We often comment that we are creatures of habit. This may be true; perhaps, habitual responses and actions are the result of not engaging or developing the creative spirit in each of us. The embracing of the disparate mind as positive and evolutionary speaks to change and renewal, a seemingly positive direction.

We believe creativity is important to everyday life because it nourishes us, gives us life that is infinitely interesting and fulfilling. Creative engagement offers a way of living life that embraces originality by accepting unique connections between seemingly disparate ideas. Creativity fertilizes our growth as human beings, evolving our understanding of who we are and the potential we have.