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.