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Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature [Hardcover]

Daniel Nettle
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Mar 2001
Madness is the central mystery of the human psyche. Our minds evolved to give us a faithful understanding of reality, to allow us to integrate into our communities, and to help us adapt our behaviour to our environment. Yet in serious mental illness, the mind does exactly the opposite of these things. The sufferer builds castles of imaginative delusion, fails to adapt, and becomes a stranger among his own people. Yet mental illness is no marginal phenomenon: it is found in all societies and all historical epochs, and the genes that underlie it are quite common. Furthermore, the traits that identify the madman are found in attenuated form in normal thinking and feeling. The persistence of madness, then, is a terrible puzzle from both an evolutionary and a human point of view. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare suggested a link between madness and artistic creativity: 'The lunatic, the lover, and the poet', he wrote, 'Are of imagination all compact'. Recent studies have shown that there is indeed a connection. Rates of mental illness are hugely elevated in the families of poets, writers and artists, suggesting that the same genes, the same temperaments, and the same imaginative capacities are at work in insanity and in creative ability. Thus the reason madness continues to exist is that the traits behind it have psychological benefits as well as psychological costs. In Strong Imagination, Daniel Nettle explores the nature of mental illness, the biological mechanisms that underlie it, and its link to creative genius. He goes on to consider the place of both madness and creative imagination in the evolution of our species.

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Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature + The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius + Creativity and Madness: New Findings and Old Stereotypes
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 248 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford; 1st ed 1st printing edition (1 Mar 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0198507062
  • ISBN-13: 978-0198507062
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 14.5 x 21.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,064,370 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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lucid, imaginative unravelling of insanity (The Scotsman 20/4/2002)

"[a] fascinating, pithy little book" (The Sunday Times Books)

"[a] fascinating, lucid book" (BMJ)

"... written with wonderful lucidity and suggestiveness." (Times Literary Supplement)

About the Author

Daniel Nettle studied psychology at Oxford, before completing his PhD in Anthropology at University College London. In 1996 he was elected a Junior Research Fellow at Merton College, Oxford. He has lectured in London, Oxford, Cambridge and Nigeria, and written widely across many areas of the human sciences. He is also active in the theatre. He lives in Oxford.

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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
I'm not a scientist or psychologist/psychiatrist but happened on this book while browsing & began reading. Its main benefit is that unlike most scientific books it's very clear and easy to read. I can't comment on the scientific validity but it seems to me to be a very good summary of current thinking on the biology of psychosis and its relationship with creativity.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars madness abbreviated 5 Feb 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a very informative and descriptive book that draws on a lot of influences, to offer many links between creativity and mental illness tendencies. The terms and variety of subject matter make for a very intense read, which may not be accessible to people who do not enjoy scientific terms. The author enjoys the terms correlation and continuum.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bring your brain 7 Dec 2004
By Twilly - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I'm a writer with manic depression who is bothered by the way mental illness is romanticized within the writing community. So many people I know believe that writers with manic depression should not take medication because it will "kill" their creativity. I find this attitude really offensive -- not just because it is false -- but also because it puts manic-depressive writers and artists in danger. I have found very few resources that adequately address this issue, very few books that explain why allowing full blown psychosis to developed is a bad idea, not just for the health of the person in question, but for his or her creativity as well. Daniel Nettle really hit this one it on the head as far as I'm concerned.

I was particularly drawn into the parts of the book that dealt with the "nature vs. nuture" argument, and the history behind each way of thinking. This information is complex but assessable. I read the book in just a few sittings.

Don't get me wrong -- this is no dumbed down self-help book. This is a heady and academic work, full of carefully thought out arguments. Bring your brain and a lot of sticky arrows to mark your favorite passages. My book is now full of them.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Strong Imagination, Madness, and Creativity. 5 Oct 2006
By New Age of Barbarism - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

Are of imagination all compact.

- _A Midsummer Night's Dream_, William Shakespeare.

_Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity, and Human Nature_ by anthropologist Daniel Nettle is a fascinating account of the intertwining relationship between madness (mental illness), creativity, and human nature all linked together through the notion of "strong imagination". As the author points out, "strong imagination" was recognized by William Shakespeare who noted three things about it: that it is an inherent aspect of human nature, that it is highly developed in madness and creativity, and that it may be associated with love or sexual attraction. The author also states later in the book that what he means by madness is really "psychosis", "the state where the sufferer passes beyond the bounds of reality, intelligibility, and rationality as defined by the bulk of society". Psychosis is mostly seen in the more extreme forms of depression, manic depression, and schizophrenia (formerly known as "dementia praecox"). The author also brings up a fourth category: the "schizoaffective" (shading between depression and/or mania and schizophrenia), although the usefulness of these categories remains a matter of some debate. Of course the very notion of mental illness and psychosis remains extremely controversial, and the author must spend a great deal of the earlier parts of this book defining exactly what he means, answering possible objections, and ultimately defending his viewpoint that mental illness is a brain disorder and results from either a chemical imbalance in the brain, an "organic" disturbance, or an atrophy in certain parts of the brain. The author also contends that medication that works on neurotransmitters in the brain (in particular antidepressants such as Prozac for minor and major depression, lithium for manic depression, and anti-psychotics for schizophrenia) dampens the effects of mood swings and may be useful for alleviating thought disorder, psychosis, or the so-called positive symptoms of schizophrenia. Furthermore, the author contends that tendencies towards psychosis (or affective disorder) are hereditary. All of this of course remains extremely controversial.

The author begins by showing what he means by "strong imagination" and its interaction with madness, especially in his comparisons of Shakespeare's plays and the bizarre delusions of an apparently schizophrenic man, Mr. Matthews, in Eighteenth century London who believed that a "gang of seven" was plotting against him and devised all sorts of explanations for their nefarious schemes. The author next explains what he means by psychosis. Important distinctions arise at this point, first between the outdated categories of neurosis (minor mental complaint) and psychosis, and secondly between two forms of psychosis (organic and functional). The distinction between organic and functional psychosis highlights two different methods of understanding mental illness (one rooted in dualism between mind and body and the other rooted in biological materialism). The author highlights some of the earlier means of treating mental illness that were rooted in this dualistic understanding, including psychotherapy and mentioning in particular Freud. The alternative approach was to treat mental illness as a form of brain disorder (and this is the dominant approach today), and thus a search for appropriate medications began. Other more radical thinkers such as Thomas Szasz have argued that mental illness does not exist at all, and that the mentally ill merely have different or unpopular beliefs, comparing schizophrenics to conscientious objectors and separatists. While there is some truth in Szasz's arguments, they ultimately rest on a misunderstanding of the concept of disease and the resulting social implications that we should not attempt to treat schizophrenics or the severely depressed are horrendous and cruel. A second distinction arises between "nature and nurture". The nature position having its roots in Galton for example, contended that mental illness was a hereditary disease and biological in nature. The nurture position which was defended by Freud, but also in a particularly extreme form by R. D. Laing, contended that mental illness arose as a result of family difficulties (or was the only rational response to the inherent contradictions of modern capitalist society) and particularly blamed the mother for them. The author will contend that the nature position has largely been vindicated and provides much evidence to show this. The author next turns his attention to manic depression and schizophrenia, attempting to show how these disorders arise and the biological basis for them. The author contends that it is useful to think of manic depression and schizophrenia as two separate entities (though the separation is fuzzy and this remains a controversial point). The author also contends that manic depressive moods (in particular the high moods of hypomania) are particularly inducive to creative work. The author also contends that schizophrenic thinking (the thought disorder of psychosis) is also inducive to creative thinking. The author proposes two distinct personality dimensions (thymotypy and schizotypy) to indicate individuals who are prone to psychosis but who may also be particularly creative. The author shows how many creative geniuses of eminence (particularly in the creative arts, though I suspect also in mathematics and philosophy) had these traits. The author also shows how these traits might have been selected for evolutionarily. Here he discusses not only their role in modern societies, but also their role in "primitive" cultures, emphasizing for example the role of shaman and bard. The author contends that the creative process may have been selected for in a similar manner to the way the peacock's beautiful tail was selected for, as part of sexual selection. The author also considers the possibility that mental illness is increasing in modern civilization. Finally, the author explains the need for creative individuals to "keep sane" and not seek out psychosis, because though thymotypy and schizotypy may be indicative of creative tendencies, outright psychosis largely interferes with creative work.

This book offers a fascinating study of the relationship between madness and creative thinking as part of "strong imagination". The author's theories are certainly interesting and backed up with much evidence to support them. As someone who has experienced both mental illness (manic depression including some psychosis) and highly creative states, I found this book to be particularly insightful.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Anthropologically relevant and interesting read!!! 22 Feb 2008
By Kathlene Kelly - Published on
Nettle's book is not for the feint of heart or the reference-challenged. It is huge, tough chunks of academia interspersed with some darned interesting stuff.

Primary in the first half of Nettle's message are his "four propositions" that:
*Psychosis is so common as to be found in approximately 1 in 30 people,
*The most common types of psychosis have a basis in the brain,
*The consequences of psychosis are of a disastrous nature and
*The propensity for psychosis is dependant on personality and just like other facets of human personality are considered, to a large extent, something that is inherited.

With these suppositions in place as a foundation, Daniel Nettle aptly highlights two significant messages regarding creativity and mental illness.

First Nettle goes out of his way to invalidate the practice of glorifying psychological illness as it occurs in artists. It is all too common amongst a variety of persons to indulge the belief that authentic creative geniuses are a by nature a psychically tortured and grief-stricken crowd from the moment of conception and thus one can't swing a cat without hitting one in the various stages of melodramatic deterioration: cutting off ears, filling pockets with rocks and walking into the Thames or painting grotesquely melting clocks and calling it cool. This is an essentially nihilistic and unsafe viewpoint for those who don't face potentially debilitating psychological challenge. It is far too disturbing a charade to encourage when someone's well-being hangs in the balance.

The second aspect of Daniel Nettle's book that I found fascinating is his willingness to embrace both heredity and psycho-social environment as having, if not always an equal share then certainly an equal opportunity in the ways psychic illness manifests. He takes this declaration one giant step further (here's the fascinating part that deserved bolded font) by asserting that the reason mental illness is seen repeating itself (in lengthy and detailed examination of genealogical records) is that there is a specific innate benefit to its succession! Nettle is clear:

if the four propositions hold true - and indeed they have cooperated thus far - then the evolutionary process has not been reluctant to weed out the tendency toward mental illness and, instead, has refused to "[eject] them from the gene pool." (137)

He goes on to cite findings that suggest that not only do "the genes associated with psychosis confer a creativity benefit not just on psychotics but on [others] as well." (151)

The idea that a well-known and reputable researcher would take it upon himself to even consider the natural place of mental illness and creative ability as a part of human evolution is phenomenal. It is far and away the most radical premise I've read regarding mental illness and artistic ability.
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