In Brief

With major depressive disorder eight to 10 times more prevalent in writers and artists than in the general population, mental health researchers and practitioners have long linked creativity with a higher risk for depression.

However, a study in the June issue of Emotion (Vol. 5, No. 2) suggests that self-reflective rumination--a focus on the self and one's feelings--may explain artists' tendency toward depression, taking the blame off creativity itself.

"Depression is associated with inactivity, difficulty concentrating and lying in bed, which seems contrary to creativity," says study co-author Jutta Joormann, PhD, a Stanford University researcher. "But depressed people are more likely to ruminate, making depression act as an intermediary variable," given that rumination can also lead individuals to generate a large number of ideas and, in turn, artistic endeavors.

To reach this finding, Syracuse University psychology professor Paul Verhaeghen, PhD, Joormann and their colleagues instructed 99 undergraduates to complete questionnaires measuring current and past depressive symptoms, creative interests and self-reflective rumination. The students--who were culled from introductory psychology classes, fine arts classes, an arts and sciences honors program and a campus writers group--also participated in two creative behavior tests that measure fluency of imagination and originality.

The researchers found no direct link between depression and creativity. However, self-reflection was correlated with both an increased risk for depression and an interest in, and talent for, creative behavior.

Joormann suggests that people most likely to have the blues are also those most likely to express them.

However, Joormann notes that the study does not explain all of the variance of creative behavior since she and her colleagues used only a sample of college students.

In future studies, Verhaeghen and his colleagues aim to expand their subject pool beyond college students to established artists and nonartists. They may also induce subjects to self-ruminate. Future findings could even inform treatment for depression, possibly indicating clinicians could use imagination, role-playing and other such techniques to reduce people's self-reflective tendencies, Joormann says.

"Knowing that people with depression are more prone to self-rumination and creativity may be a good resource to use in therapy," she says.