'Flow' and Psychosis in the Artist's Experience

New research suggests that some mental mechanisms and dispositions that are associated with full-blown psychosis may confer tremendous advantages to flow, creativity and what makes life meaningful.
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The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad.
-- Salvador Dali

Flow -- the mental state of being completely present and fully immersed in a task -- is a strong contributor to creativity. When in flow, the creator and the universe become one, outside distractions recede from consciousness and one's mind is fully open and attuned to the act of creating. Since flow is so essential to creativity and well-being across many slices of life -- from sports, to music, to physics, to religion, to spirituality, to sex -- it's important that we learn more about the characteristics associated with flow so that we may all learn how to tap into this precious mental resource.

In a recent study reported in Schizophrenia Bulletin, Nelson and Rawlings propose that a mild form of schizophrenia called schizotypy may be positively associated with the experience of flow. Schizophrenia is a debilitating mental illness that affects roughly 1 percent of the population and involves altered states of consciousness and "abnormal" perceptual experiences. Schizotypy, which is a watered-down version of schizophrenia, consists of a constellation of personality traits that are evident to some degree in everyone.

High levels of schizotypy are typically found in relatives of individuals with full fledged schizophrenia. Some researchers have proposed that the genes that underlie schizophrenia may remain in the human gene pool because of the benefits those with schizotypy receive in terms of creativity; those with schizotypy have the genes that that may contribute to creativity without the debilitating genes that would prevent them from achieving their maximum potential.

Research confirms a link between schizotypy and creative achievement. In particular, "positive" schizotypal traits such as unusual perceptual experiences and magical beliefs tend to be elevated in artists, and "negative" schizotypal traits such as physical and social anhedonia (a feeling of emotional emptiness) and introversion tend to be associated with mathematical and scientific creativity. (Of course, there are scientists with positive schizotypal traits and artists with negative schizotypal traits -- I'm only talking relative numbers.)

But what about the connection between schizotypy and flow? Nelson and Rawlings make the intriguing suggestion:

Positive schizotypy is associated with central features of "flow"-type experience, including distinct shift in phenomenological experience, deep absorption, focus on present experience and sense of pleasure.

Similarly, in her fascinating and informative book, "Writing in Flow," Susan K. Perry comments:

It shouldn't play into any of your anxieties about the loss of control that comes with flow if I share with you that looseness and the ability to cross mental boundaries are aspects of both schizophrenic thinking and creative thinking.

To examine the connection between schizotypy and the experience of flow, Nelson and Rawlings had a sample of 100 artists from a wide range of artistic fields (including music, visual arts, theatre and literature) report aspects of their personality, their experiences of creativity and their levels of "postitive" schizotypal traits such as affective disturbance and mental boundaries.

Their "Experience of Creativity Questionnaire" measured the following components:

  • Distinct Experience, "related to the creative process being a definite shift in nature or type of experience. This change in experience included such aspects as loss of self-awareness, a breakdown of boundaries, a sense of contact with a force beyond the individual self and a confidence and effortlessness about the artistic activity."

  • Absorption, related to "the artist's feeling inspired and being deeply absorbed in the artistic activity."
  • Power/Pleasure, "related to a sense of control, power and pleasure felt during the creative process."
  • Clarity/Preparation, related to "a sense of certainty and clarity about the direction in which the artistic activity should proceed, including the meaning of the piece of work, and to cultivating an appropriate mood for the creative process."
  • Anxiety, "related to a sense of anxiety and vulnerability associated with the creative process, particularly after completion of the process."
  • Consistent with prior research, they found that their sample of artists scored higher than the average population (based on norm data) on the schizotypal traits of unipolar affective disturbance (depression) and thin boundaries, as well as the personality traits of openness to experience and neuroticism.

    Interestingly, they didn't replicate research showing elevated levels of bipolar mood disorder in artists. As a possible explanation, the researchers point out that their sample consists of mainly contemporary artists. As they point out, "creativity is a construct that varies not only across fields, but also across styles and artistic movements."

    Indeed, clinical psychologist Louis A. Sass notes in his article, "Schizophrenia, Modernism and the 'Creative Imagination': On Creativity and Psychopathology," that most of the prior work on the link between bipolar and artistic creativity has been based on eminent classical artists from earlier periods, particularly the Romantic period. In his book, "Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature and Thought," Sass further makes the case that modernistic and postmodern artists report psychotic or schizotypal experiences.

    According to Nelson and Rawlings:

    These affinities include an adversarial stance, perspectivism and relativism, a certain fragmentation and passivization of the ego, loss of the ''worldhood of the world,'' rejection or loss of the sense of temporal flow or narrative unity, forms of intense self-reference and extreme and pervasive detachment or emotional distancing.

    Most interestingly, Nelson and Rawlings found that the schizotypal traits of unipolar affective disturbance and thin boundaries were significantly associated with four components from their "Experience of Creativity Questionnaire": distinct experience, anxiety, absorption and power/pleasure. Note that three of these components (distinct experience, absorption and power/pleasure) are directly related to the experience of flow.

    These findings are fascinating and beg the question: What mechanism or set of mechanisms account for the association between schizotypy and the experience of flow? The researchers argue that latent inhibition is of particular relevance to understanding this association (also see "Why Daydreamers Are More Creative").

    Reduced latent inhibition represents an inability to screen out from awareness stimuli that have previously been tagged as irrelevant. Prior research has shown an association between reduced latent inhibition and psychosis. However, emeritus Professor David R. Hemsley at King's College, London argues that while this loosening of expectations based on previous experience may cause a disruption in sense of self, this mental process may also confer advantages for creativity. Recent research showing common genetic and neurotransmitter linkages (particularly dopamine) between both schizophrenia and creativity support this association at a biological level.

    As the researchers note, the million dollar question is this: What distinguishes the person who, in the Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard's phrase, "drowns in possibility" from the person who is able to use his or her reduced latent inhibition in a way that enables heightened levels of creativity?

    Some researchers have argued that intelligence and working memory may be factors that protect the individual with creative potential from falling over the edge into madness. Factors such as working memory and high executive functioning (which tend to show activations in the prefrontal cortex of the brain) may enable the individual with reduced latent inhibition to not go mad from the influx of emotions and sensations and make good use of the broad range of novel input. Indeed, researchers have found that the combination of high I.Q. and reduced latent inhibition is associated with creative achievement.

    So how would reduced latent inhibition be associated with the phenomenology of flow? Nelson and Rawlings reason that the reduced latent inhibition's failure to precategorize stimuli as irrelevant would "result in immediate experience not being shaped or determined by preceding events." In addition:

    it is precisely this newness of appreciation, and the associated sense of exploration and discovery, that stimulates the deep immersion in the creative process, which itself may trigger a shift in quality of experience, generally in terms of an intensification or heightening of experience.

    I reckon that it is this openness to experience aspect (and associated functioning of the dopaminergic neurotransmitter system) that is crucial to understanding the schizotypy/flow connection. Self-reported openness to experience is in fact related to reduced latent inhibition, suggesting that openness to experience is a phenotype that is related to actual information processing.

    Hopefully more research on the experience of flow conducted on both artists and scientists (flow is also important among scientists) will allow for a deeper appreciation of the potential for creativity in those who are prone to psychosis. Many creative folk who think in a certain way are annoyed by stereotypical associations between creativity and madness. And rightly so. While debilitating mental illness is certainly not conducive to creativity, exciting new research is starting to point to the conclusion that some mental mechanisms and dispositions that are associated with full-blown psychosis may also be present in varying degrees in everyone and may confer tremendous advantages to flow, creativity and what makes life meaningful.

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