Joshua Kendall And The Psychology Of Creativity

If you have never heard of Joshua Kendall, he is a historian and biography who has found a niche in discussing the tie between obsessive personality and intense creativity of particular kinds.  He has, for example, written biographies of Noah Webster and Roget (of Roget’s Thesaurus) and posited that their obsessive personalities were a major part of what allowed them to be able to focus on the hard work of categorizing language for the benefit of others in creating pioneering compilations.  In his book America’s Obsessives, Kendall discusses a half-dozen people who he views as having suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), many of whom, like Thomas Jefferson and the Dewey of the Dewey Decimal System, were similarly involved in efforts to categorizing knowledge and organize it together.  The combination between mental disorder or disorder in their personal lives and the fervent longing for order in their lives and in their world appears to have deeply colored their work.

Whether or not the author himself suffers with OCD like the people he tends to write about, Kendall’s discussion of the relationship between mental illness and intense creativity is worth considering.  In many ways, creativity involves the discovery of new patterns or the novel use of existing genres and archetypes, and it is quite likely that people whose thought processes are already well outside of the norm of their own societies and cultures are well-equipped to provide creative solutions to problems.  Likewise, it appears quite easy to understand how someone whose mind would obsessively try to create order and structure in the face of life’s messiness would be well-equipped to structure and organize parts of the world that would allow others to profit from the creation of new genres and patterns and archetypes to work with.  Someone who creates a thesaurus allows others to find better words through the categorization of synonyms and antonyms.  Someone who creates an effective dictionary allows others to increase their own vocabulary.  Someone who organizes books together allows readers to benefit from the opportunity to engage in syntopical reading through knowing related books that might shed some light or add a new perspective to one’s research.  In such a fashion, the creativity of a few obsessed and focused and immensely able people can help the creative efforts of many who follow in their wake.

Yet such creativity has a darker side as well.  Mental illness carries with it a certain degree of social stigma in many cases.  In many cases obsessive people struggle to form meaningful friendships and intimacy with other people, struggle to treat others as equal, and can be very difficult people to have as spouses, parents, and associates.  The lives of people with mental illnesses in general can be marked by a great degree of suffering and torment, and even if there are positive results at times to this if the person is resilient and successfully wrestles with their demons, such a process carries with it a great deal of negativity as well.  Not only that, but many mental illnesses are strongly influenced by abusive and difficult childhoods, and so the creation of creative but obsessive or bipolar people is very likely to be unethical and the result of behavior that deserves some sort of punishment.  Someone whose mental illness is connected with creativity–and such connections are very common throughout history is someone who ends up having an ambivalent place, as someone on the outskirts of polite society who may be difficult to deal with, someone whose creativity is appreciated and may be of profit to themselves and their societies, and someone whose life is worthy of compassion and sympathy even if they themselves may not be the most sympathetic of people because of their rough edges and mental states.

As creativity is a successful response to adversity, and those people who are most creative are also people who generally have to deal with a great degree of adversity, the question of what can be done to help further the creativity of people is one that is fraught with a great many concerns about the possibly inverse relationship between creativity and one’s mental health.  To be sure, we should not want to induce creativity through increasing the adversity that people suffer, as creativity is not the only result of someone suffering through mental health problems that result from adversity.  That said, people whose thinking processes are different from others and whose approach to the world is unusual and distinct are likely to be people whose uniqueness and distinctiveness is already likely to bring upon them a great deal of adversity in a world that has always tended to prefer conformity, no matter how much lip service may be paid to creativity and innovation.  In such a situation where creativity is likely to cause adversity, what remains to be done is to encourage a resilient response to adversity that allows the creativity to continue with a minimum of suffering as a result of the adversity that one gains for having been a bit of an oddball.  To the extent that we are aware that being creative and unusual may cause difficulty, it can be prepared for and overcome much easier than if it comes by surprise and without warning.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Musings, On Creativity and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Joshua Kendall And The Psychology Of Creativity

  1. Pingback: An Introduction To The On Creativity Project | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Catharine E. Martin says:

    It often takes one of like mind to understand. I know from personal experience that one who thinks speaks and behaves outside the norm will inevitably be the object of adversity; it cannot be helped. However, when the personality disorder that develops as a result of that adversity is diagnosed, medication is available to calm the awful bipolar symptoms. This, in itself, will bring the individual within the margins of acceptable behavior, so that the reactions to the outside world are not so frightening to it.

    • Indeed, mental health is a tricky matter. I agree that someone who things and behaves outside of the norm, whether that norm is good or bad, is going to draw adversity. How does one preserve the good sort of creativity that may cause one problems but also benefits society at large, given how much of creativity doesn’t serve to benefit others at all.

  3. Pingback: A Tale Of Sports Subgenres: A Syntoptical Reading Project | Edge Induced Cohesion

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