Can you think of a comedian, actor, poet or writer who suffered from mental illness? Maybe actor Robin Williams or comedian Stephen Fry came to mind.
Maybe it was the writer Virginia Woolf. All three had well-documented issues with bipolar disorder.
Mental illness has long been associated with creative thinking. For example, mathematician John Nash’s battle with schizophrenia was immortalized in the film A Beautiful Mind (2001).
Research supports this connection and shows that people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia are more likely to work in creative professions.
It also shows that creative groups, including stand-up comedians, artists and scientists, often face higher rates of mental health issues.
But are all creative people created equal? Our new study aimed to investigate whether a unique creative group that has never been studied before – magicians – showed similar tendencies towards some mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.
We also looked at whether they were more likely to have a neurodivergent difference, such as autism.
Many researchers believe that both mental illness and neurodivergence can promote creative thinking. Scientist Temple Grandin is a famous example of this.
She credits her experience on the autism spectrum with developing a hugging machine that allows for more humane treatment of farm animals and was later adopted by other autistic people.
Mental illnesses can range from anxiety or depression to personality disorders or psychosis.
When someone experiences psychosis, it is measured on a continuum, with only those who experience certain patterns and episodes being diagnosed with schizophrenia.
For example, people who have not been clinically diagnosed with schizophrenia, such as those with fewer episodes or less intense symptoms of psychosis, sometimes experience wandering minds and disorganized thinking.
This can make it difficult to concentrate, but can have a positive effect on promoting creativity.
The thing about magicians is that they both create and perform their own shows. In this sense they are similar to comedians. Most other creative groups either create something or execute something, but not both.
Unlike comedians, however, there is much more at stake in a magic performance. When a comedian’s joke fails, it can be awkward, but it’s unlikely to ruin the whole show.
The comedian gets back on track with a few good jokes that make the audience laugh. In contrast, a magic trick gone wrong can have disastrous consequences and the opportunity to recover during the act can be rare.
Magicians must therefore be extremely precise in their performance and have high technical skills while entertaining the audience.
This unique work environment and skills make them a fascinating creative group to learn from. We conducted our own research with the assistance of a professional magician.
Our study involved 195 magicians, mostly from the UK and USA, with an average of 35 years of magic experience. These included close-up magicians, mentalists, card experts and large stage magicians.
The magicians filled out questionnaires assessing their tendencies toward autistic and psychotic traits.
These were then compared to a sample of non-magicians with a similar age range and gender distribution, as well as other creative groups such as comedians, poets, actors and musicians.
The magicians showed no predisposition to autistic traits and performed similarly to the general population. However, magicians performed worse than the general sample and other creative groups on almost every psychotic symptom.
In particular, these magicians demonstrated very high levels of concentration, lower levels of social anxiety, and fewer unusual experiences, distorted thoughts, and hallucinations.
All of these qualities are highly beneficial to the work of magicians, allowing them to focus and pay attention to their craft without distractions.
The magicians we studied also showed no tendency to antisocial behavior and had good self-control. While these qualities are valuable to many creative groups such as artists and comedians, they are less important to a magic performance.
Magic performances are social events that often involve the audience and sometimes employ assistants. Friendliness and affability are therefore a key ingredient for a successful show.
In this respect, magicians are more like scientists, who also perform poorly with psychotic symptoms. Both require a high level of organization and perseverance in their work.
Additionally, magicians can perform the same magic trick in different ways, just as scientists often research different solutions to the same problem.
Magicians vary in the creativity of their performances. While some magicians can be edgy and innovative (check out David Copperfield’s famous flight illusion below), many magicians can build successful careers by performing familiar tricks, sometimes with their own tweaks, without having to develop new tricks.
Unlike other creative groups that are more flexible in their work and can improvise during their performances, magic shows require discipline and must be repeated in exactly the same way for the tricks to work.
The magician’s oath not to reveal the secrets behind the tricks allows him to perform the same tricks repeatedly without boring the audience and also preserves the mystery of the act.
Therefore, unlike other creative endeavors, mental illness and developmental differences can be counterproductive to a magician’s work.
It is possible that aspiring magicians with more pronounced psychotic and autistic traits may have great difficulty succeeding in this profession.
Ultimately, our study shows that not all creative individuals are created equal and the connection between creativity and psychopathology is more complex than previously thought.
Written by Gil Greengross. The conversation.
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