“Two hallmarks of a healthy life are the abilities to love and to work. Each requires imagination.” Freud.
Creativity as portrayed in popular culture has had a mixed relationship with wellbeing and mental health – from images of mad professors blowing up chemistry labs as they experiment with new ideas to tortured artists struggling in profound poverty, creativity has often been linked with significant costs. Those have included financial security, physical health and emotional wellbeing. Indeed, a recent systematic review of the relationship between bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders and artistic professions notes a statistically significant link (Kyaga, 2018). However, there has also been an appreciation of the salutary potential of creativity where imagination, innovation and originality has been linked with improved emotional wellbeing, reduced symptomatic distress and increased sense of identity and self-esteem. Some of the evidence indicating these benefits will be outlined below.
The notion of ‘creativity’ has bamboozled philosophers and thinkers for decades, with ongoing debates regarding what it exactly means. One article “The Standard Definition of Creativity” tousles with this problem and has been cited over 2500 times (Runco and Jaeger, 2012). The upshot is that most definitions indicate that a creative act uses imagination to bring about something original and innovative. Creativity can range across multiple domains of human experience and does not need to be restricted to activities traditionally seen as ‘artistic’. It can include ways of communicating, formal artistic endeavours or patterns of thinking that help solve a problem.Creativity can also be closely linked to experiences of play (see associated fact sheet Benefit of Play – what does the evidence say?) and mindfulness (see associated fact sheet Mindfulness; Theory and Practice).
Several small studies in the past few years have indicated that creative acts such as improvised theatre, expressive writing and rap music can lead to improvements in creative thinking, self-esteem, self-efficacy, disordered eating, sense of identity and connection with others (Schwenke, Dshemuchadse, Rasehorn et al, 2021; Richards, Hoskin, Maddox II et al, 2019; Ramsey-Wade, Williamson & Meyrick, 2021). A study examining the impact of a 10 week art therapy course for those struggling with personality vulnerabilities pointed to medium to large effect sizes on the participants’ emotional wellbeing, mindfulness levels and reduced symptom distress (Haeyena, van Hoorenc, van der Veldf et al, 2018) whilst a systematic review exploring the impact of creative arts activities in school on children’s wellbeing also suggested positive effects. The latter review did note, however, that the research quality in this area was somewhat mixed (Moula, Aithal, Karkou et al, 2020).
Interestingly, neuroscientific research has noted some links between creativity and mindfulness, although the research attempting to map creativity to brain states remains in its infancy and it is difficult to rely on definitive findings. Some studies indicate that there are different patterns of electrical signals across brain structures when someone is engaged in a creative task versus others, and neuroimaging studies implicate heightened use of the prefrontal cortex in creative states (Fink and Benadek, 2013). The importance of the pre-frontal cortex and executive function is examined in an associated fact sheet (see Neuroception and the Mind/Body System). Future research may more firmly establish a link between creative states, mindfulness and improved integrated brain function (Capurso, Fabbro and Crescentini, 2014).
Capurso, Fabbro and Crescentini. “Mindful creativity: the influence of mindfulness meditation on creative thinking.” In Frontiers in Psychology, 2014, number 4, 1020.
Fink and Benadek “The Creative Brain: Brain Correlates underlying the Generation of Original Ideas.” In Vartanian, Bristol and Kaufman (Eds), Neuroscience of Creativity, 2013, MIT Press, USA.
Haeyena, van Hoorenc, van der Veldf et al. “Promoting mental health versus reducing mental illness in art therapy with patients with personality disorders: A quantitative study.” In The Arts in Psychotherapy, 2018, Volume 58, pp. 11 - 16
Kyaga, S. “A Heated Debate: Time to Address the Underpinnings of the Association between Creativity and Psychopathology?” in Jung, R and Vartanian, O (Eds) The Cambridge Handbook of the Neuroscience of Creativity. Cambridge University Press, UK, 2018.
Moula, Aithal, Karkou et al.”A systematic review of child-focused outcomes and assessments of arts therapies delivered in primary mainstream schools.” In Children and Youth Services Review, 2020, number 112, 104928
Ramsey-Wade, Williamson & Meyrick. “Therapeutic Writing for Disordered Eating: A Systematic Review.” In Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 2021, volume 16, number 1, pp. 59-76
Richards, Hoskin, Maddox II et al. “A Qualitative Study of Group Therapy Incorporating Rap Music with Incarcerated Individuals.” In Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 2019, volume 14, number 4, pp. 478-491
Runco and Jaeger. “The Standard Definition of Creativity” in Creativity Research Journal, 2012, Volume 24, number 1, pp. 92-96.
Schwenke, Dshemuchadse, Rasehorn et al. “IImprov to Improve: The Impact of Improvisational Theater on Creativity, Acceptance, and Psychological Well-Being.” In Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 2021, volume 16, number 1, pp. 31-48
Author: Dr Alice Dwyer BA(Hons) MBBS(Hons) MPsych FRANZCP