Creativity, mental illness and simplistic labels

WHILE THE RECENT section, "Considering Creativity" (November Monitor ), was illuminating in many respects, I found the rather casual use of the term "mental illness" in association with creative individuals both devaluing and misleading. Because "mental illness" implies a discrete boundary between neurophysiological health and disease and because that boundary is so notoriously elusive, I find the term problematic when applied to the population as a whole, let alone when applied to a population as resilient and productive as the creative.

While many creative people suffer and live tumultuous lives, this is distinctly different from the characterization that they are mentally ill--which implies that they are diseased individuals, quantitatively and qualitatively more debilitated than apparently "healthy" individuals whose brains are "normal."

But is normal really healthy, and is mental suffering really reducible to disease? Consider, for example, whether the adherents of the Spanish Inquisition, the throngs who supported Hitler, or, closer to our own disturbing heritage, the masses who have supported bigots, have normal brains?

While it may be true that some creative individuals have some identifiable brain pathologies associated with depression, mania, anxiety and the like, it is not clear that such pathologies are any more debilitating, and therefore disease-like, than the countless examples of disturbance and inhumanity that we fail to label as mental illness. My hope then is that psychology can be a little more nuanced than its medically anchored counterpart, psychiatry, when it comes to describing human experience that is of such a subtle and profound nature.


PHD Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, San Francisco

YOUR "CONSIDERING CREATIVITY" was welcome, if less than revealing of breakthroughs in the field. Dean Keith Simonton has written extensively, and well, on accomplishment and yet is still looking for "something else that must be there for a person to be truly creative" (page 41). May I suggest looking in the 1978 American Psychologist for my article on parental loss and genius. Trauma and creative productivity and occupational achievement are linked via bereavement or more generally overcoming loss. The book "Parental Loss and Achievement" (International Universities Press, 1989) further developed the theme.

To be creative, one has to have motivation to defy the crowd. Little c creativity doesn't need big M motivation to succeed, but big C creativity does. Nothing seems to provide more big M motivation than parental loss. Edgar Allan Poe lost his father at age one and mother at age two. The positive literature produced and the negative psychopathology lived by Poe give a good picture of the creative process at work as it interacts with mental problems.

So does the life of Sylvia Plath, whose father died when she was eight; her first suicide attempt occurred at age 19. Abraham Lincoln lost his mother at nine, but was lucky to have had one of history's great stepmothers to help him grow. The rest is history.

How about it? Is there a better "something else" to explain big C creativity and great occupational success than reparation of loss?


Syosset, N.Y.

The testing techs issue

THE NOVEMBER ARTICLE about reversing prohibitions on the use of nondoctoral testing technicians argued that technicians do many medical procedures, so why not psychological testing? But technicians in medical fields generally have to have at least two years of intensive skill training geared toward mastering their specific procedures and equipment, and they often must meet national certification standards.

Psychology leaves the responsibility for determining "competency" of a testing technician up to the supervising psychologist. Thus, the person administering psychological tests may have an undergraduate or graduate degree in psychology, but little or no formal training in measurement principles, test administration or techniques in working with people with disabilities or diverse backgrounds. Instead, they receive on-the-job training in testing skills, with the extent and quality of that training dependent on their employer.

We claim concern about the technical adequacy of the instruments we use, but then, as a profession, have no uniform standards for the skills of the persons directly responsible for obtaining the data that is going to be used to make decisions about a client's life.

I teach graduate assessment courses. I know it is easy to give many instruments poorly and difficult to consistently give them well. I fear that the convenience of having testing technicians, and of having few guidelines for their training and supervision, leads many practitioners to not want to examine too closely the validity of the data produced by often minimally trained examiners. Shouldn't our techs be trained as thoroughly as radiology techs are trained?


Minnesota State University Moorhead

What lessons from Jonestown?

"LESSONS FROM JONESTOWN" (November Monitor ) purports to be about "what happens when social psychology is placed in the wrong hands" and "how cults abuse social psychology research." But the article does not cite a single instance of either phenomenon. Instead, it lists ways in which Jim Jones may have mastered the art of mind control by studying George Orwell and "through [Jones's] natural understanding of social psychology"(emphasis added).

It would also be easy to make the case that Hitler plunged Germany into a homicidal, genocidal and suicidal war through mass mind control--in his case with a fair amount of help from Josef Göbbels but none at all from social psychologists or even famous novelists.

I have no doubt that social psychologists ought to study the misuse of their research findings and help develop ways of undoing and preventing the damage wrought by charlatans and fanatics. But the suggestion that the behavior of cult leaders is a result of psychological science data falling into the wrong hands is, to say the least, rather overdrawn. It represents, if anything, an abuse of facts about human nature that anyone with the right sort of intuition and the wrong sort of motivation can figure out for himself.


Brooklyn, N.Y.


ALLOW ME TO CORRECT A possible misinterpretation in the otherwise excellent article on cults and Jim Jones by Melissa Dittmann. Jim Jones, the leader of People's Temple, who orchestrated the mass murders of 912 of his followers in the jungles of Guyana, used a variety of influence tactics that are social psychological in nature, but there is no evidence that he based them on research he read by social psychologists. I present evidence, however, that he did rely on the mind control tactics and strategies outlined by George Orwell in his novel "1984."


Stanford University

Science, children and atypical gender behavior

I AM DISTURBED BY THE response of several readers to your article (September Monitor ) on children who demonstrate atypical gender behavior. The authors of the letter make the case that psychologists are ignoring scientific data and treating gender-variant children from a politically correct stance as opposed to a scientific one. Clearly there is some evidence that you can change atypical gender behavior in children, but there is also scientific evidence that you can coerce children into performing most any behavior! The ethical question being ignored by these readers is whether changing behavior of gender-variant children creates long-term psychological harm.

There are numerous case studies, as well as scientific data, which demonstrate that forcing individuals into normative gender identities (and/or a heterosexual orientation, which these readers are confusing with gender identity) can be both traumatic and detrimental to the person's psychological well-being. Rather than throwing barbs at the institution of psychology for taking a pseudo-liberal stance on gender identity, I would hope that these practitioners will consider the ethical implications of their words for the individual lives of their clients.


University of Colorado at Boulder