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The Harvard study Conducted by Modupe Akinola and Wendy Berry Mendes (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, December 1, 2008) examined a range of subjects including a group shown to have a vulnerability to depression (determined by participants' baseline levels of an adrenal steroid, which has been previously linked to depression) and subjected them to various social situations. Participants were asked to create works of art after experiencing social rejection, social approval or a neutral situation. When professional artists evaluated these works of art the group who experienced rejection prior to the creation of the artwork was consistently ranked higher than the other two groups. Strengthening these results is the fact that the group that was judged to have a vulnerability to depression was ranked the highest. According to the researchers “These data provide evidence of possible biological and social pathways to artistic creativity.”Scientific studies aside, evidence for a connection between depression and creativity can be found in the lives of many great artists who have been known to have great mood swings and intense depression. As Claude Monet once said “I am very depressed and deeply disgusted with painting. It is really a continual torture.” Ernest Hemingway wrote, “that terrible mood of depression …is what is known as ‘The Artist's Reward’.” It may be possible that to portray the darker side of the human condition one must be fully immersed in that dark side. It is also possible that people romanticize and exaggerate the negative emotions of certain artists. Historically, many have linked depression and creativity due to the notion that to truly understand and represent the human condition one must have experienced not only great happiness but also great sorrow.Surely not all great artists have been manic-depressives and there is probably a selective element to the anecdotal evidence about the tortured artist. While there may be some truth to this stereotype it is also possible that there are other causes for it. It has been suggested that artists observe the world and themselves more keenly than others do and that this observation may lead to greater depth of emotion. Dr. Thomas Svolos of the department of Psychiatry at Creighton University School of Medicine agrees, “When you’re melancholy, you tend to step back and examine your life,” he says. “That kind of questioning is essential for creativity.” Other academics who study such things have taken up arms against such propositions and caution against hastily drawn connections. Detractors of research like this assert that there is not yet enough evidence to assume an association between depression and exceptional creativity and that doing so encourages negative stereotypes.There have been several studies now that seem to show a correlation between negative emotion and artistic talent just as this new Harvard study does but the jury is still out. It looks as though the gloomier aspects of the human condition may share some connection with creativity but the relationship is not entirely clear. Societies sometimes romanticize the depression of great artists and tell tragic tales about them because the tragedy lends an emotional weight and a human credibility to their art. A certain introspective personality may be required for the observational skill of a great artist and this personality might also lead to bouts of depression. Certainly the issue will continue to be studied and art will continue to be produced undaunted by the controversy.
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