Saturday, December 4, 2010

Don't cut off your ear!

Jonah Lehrer describes in his blog (“Feeling Sad Makes Us More Creative?”) a recent study which seems to confirm “that people who are a little bit miserable” (like Van Gogh) are more creative (or innovative). He concludes that “the cliché might be true after all. Angst has creative perks.” I recall some time ago Lehrer already wrote about the upside of depression, but his focus is narrower now. When a researcher induced sad feelings and thoughts in experimental subjects, they produced collages which were judged a (statistically significant) tad more creative as compared to controls. Sadness also seemed to make subjects more attentive and detail-oriented, and to generally sharpen their “information processing strategies.” Apparently, such focus and diligence are quite helpful in performing various tasks – “writing a poem or solving a hard technical problem.” As further proof, Lehrer points to a survey which found that 80 per cent of writers who participated in one workshop “met the formal diagnostic criteria for some form of depression.” In my naïveté, I have always thought artistic creativity is a bit different from the sparks of innovation that have given us the atomic bomb and Facebook. While the latter could easily come to people who meet the diagnostic criteria for some part of the autistic spectrum, the former would seem to hinge on intense emotional attunement and expression. In that case, heightened sensitivity could produce both depressive slumps (or even madness) and creative surges. So having raw nerves would make it likelier that you 1) cut off your ear, and 2) achieve artistic recognition, and maybe even greatness. It seems like a classic case where one independent variable (emotional sensitivity/intensity) determines two dependent variables (depressive moods and creativity); therefore the correlation between those does not signify causation. On the basis of this theory, I do have the hunch that sacrificing any body part is highly unlikely to unleash the creative potential pent up in your skull. And this would apply to geeks, too – so maybe Lehrer is right and there is no meaningful difference between the two areas of creativity or innovation.