Creative Illness. When Physicists and Artists Found a Common Language.

By Alexander Golbin, MD

Illness is a bad thing by definition. Illness, disorder, disease – all these words reflect physical disability, crash of our dreams and downhill of the quality of our life. We struggle to prevent illnesses and fight with them when they come upon us at any cost.

The optimism of 60th , when the public and professionals believed  that triumphs of science and medicine will soon solve all mysteries of all diseases, that we will soon find treatment for any disorders and will live happily there after, faded away now. We accept that illness, disorders and death are an intrinsic part of life, and all of us will go through this eventually. So, is the end of a beautiful tale? Yes, but a new even more exiting and more realistic tale is emerging. This tale is about using the illness as a source of energy for life, and creative life.

This story started in the seemingly abstract aspects of physics, but quickly became very practical. Physicists noticed that not all disorders in the nature is not necessarily a bad thing. For balancing a vertical stick on the finger required “disordered” movements of the hand. Our nervous leg shaking helps to calm us down. Doctors noticed along time ago that intervals between heart beats varies chaotically. When heart beats became unusually regular (“normal”) it is a serious warning for break down in the cardiovascular system including sudden death. Chaos might by helpful and healthy! This is now known as Dynamic Chaos Theory.

 When doctors look at human disorders, they now recognized that not all dis-orders (out of order) symptoms are bad. Some of them might be compensatory, when the body actively “sets up” one system or organ to “off-set” the major trouble threatening the organism as a whole. The law of “sacrificing” one organ to save the whole organism is called the “control system theory”.

The bottom line: the disorder might be helpful! But not in the ordinary way, and the best example is the role of illness in creativity.

For centuries people saw a connection between creativity and illness, predominantly mental illness. Do you need to be crazy to be creative, or if you creative you should be a little crazy? This “chicken and the egg” dilemma died by itself because not only mental but any disorder and any creativity might transfer one into other.

A physicist, Tobi Zausner, who is also a prominent contemporary artist himself studied creativity  and their illnesses of 21 famous visual artists from the dynamic chaos theory. Among hose artists were Botticelli, Durer, Michelangelo, Titian, Goya, Monet, Matisse, Munch Ryder and others. Art history and medicine provided detailed biographical data, and psychology offered insights into their motivation and behavior. As a mathematical obstruction of behavior, chaos theory revealed the dynamics of what Ellenberg called “creative illness” (an illness that profoundly affects the sick persons and the artwork produced)- typical “disorder-creativity” patterns.

These patterns are clustered into four types. In the first type, a period of physical or mental illness preceded choice of carrier in art.(Botticelli, Marsh, Matisse, Demuth). In the second type, illness transformed the established creative style into a new dimension (period)(Durer, Michelangelo, Goya, Monet). In the third type, for some artists their illness became the life’s focus, an obsession with positive or, more often , negative results (Kahlo, Flanagan)… Artists of the fourth type remain creative during  the last terminal or severely incapacitated produced entirely different art  as the rage against disorder(Matisse, DUrer, Degas, Beaux)

More down the earth example of the positive affect of illness on the work not only artists but in any field of creativity is known as an “anniversary phenomenon”. The sick person  beliefs that he/she will not die until their life’s mission is completed. It might be a writer working on the book, or scientist finishing the experiment “of his life’, or a religious person traveling to his destination.

What is the conclusion? We need to learn not only to fight with illnesses but to transform them into enhancing our creativity force.

Ref: Goldberg A., Rigney D.R., West B.J. “Chaos and Fractals in Human Physiology”.
Scientific American. February, 1990:42-49.
Zausner T.  “When Walls Became Doorways: Creativity, Chaos Theory, and
Physical Illness”. Creativity Research Journal.V.11,No1:21-28