Friday, April 9, 2021

Creativity and Self-Actualization

One of the themes of this blog concerns the forces that interfere with the ability of people to self-actualize, or express themselves and their opinions, and act on their own personal desires, even when their kin or social group may not always be supportive. Self-actualized people do not always follow in groupthink patterns during which they will go along to get along, agreeing with the family or ethnic groups ideas and philosophies while remaining willfully blind to any information that contradicts the group mythology.


Although she did not put it in those terms exactly, the question of whether the ability to do this is an important contribution to creativity in the arts and sciences was addressed by Nancy C. Andreasen, a well known psychiatry professor at the University of Iowa College of Medicine and the former editor in chief of The American Journal of Psychiatry, in an article entitled Secrets of the Creative Brain in the July/August 2014 issue of the Atlantic magazine. 


She describes a study she has been doing with a lot of creative people, many of whom are celebrities. In the article, she first discusses the often purported relationship between genius and madness, and found that there is indeed some truth to the idea that there is some. The incidence of mental illnesses in her subjects and their family members is indeed higher than expected. Although some of it may involve heredity, as evidenced by the incidence of schizophrenia, most of the psychiatric disorders found in her sample were those that primarily involve interpersonal dysfunction: certain mood and anxiety disorders and alcoholism.


Why might that be? Her answer speaks to my speculation about the role of self-actualization in creative people:  


“One possible contributory factor is a personality style shared by many of my creative subjects. These subjects are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks. Particularly in science, the best work tends to occur in new frontiers. (As a popular saying among scientists goes: “When you work at the cutting edge, you are likely to bleed.”) They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.”

To be innovative in one’s field involves the ability to persist in letting one’s mind work in the face of scorn and rejection from one’s peers. Even though it does hurt, innovators didn’t let rejection of publications or grant application stop them from continuing. They also had the wherewithal to be proven wrong at times and yet not be discouraged from continuing to search widely for better answers to technical questions.


Creative genius also involved the willingness to teach oneself about a wide variety of subjects rather than be spoon fed by teachers only in one’s chosen field of endeavor. Andreasen noted that many of her subjects were what she referred to as autodidacts – basically self-taught. Many had gotten in trouble with their school teachers for pointing out times when the teacher said something that was not true. She also found that many of her subjects were “polymaths” – people who read widely not only in their chosen area of expertise but in many subjects, both in the sciences and the humanities.

This sounds like self-actualization to me.


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