Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Trying to escape

There's long been an association between creativity and mental illness.  Certainly there's plenty of anecdotal evidence -- people like Sylvia Plath, Robert Schumann, Virginia Woolf, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Vincent van Gogh are commonly-cited examples -- and a few controlled studies have suggested that there is at least some degree of correlation between the two.

The question, as always, is whether this correlation is indicative of causation, and if so, which direction the causation points.  Does the underlying physiological problem that causes mental illness create, as a side effect, a greater degree of creativity?  (A recent study supports this conjecture, at least in some cases.)  Or does mental illness cause a desire to cultivate creative outlets as a way to assuage the pain?

This latter possibility was the subject of a paper that came out this week from Ohio State University, authored by psychologist Joseph Maffly-Kipp.  The research had two parts.  The first was a cross-sectional study of people from ages 18 to 72, in all walks of life, that assessed their experience of depression and mood disorders, and also scored them for fantasy-proneness -- to what extent did they find themselves escaping into fantasy worlds, whether through reading, watching television or movies, creative endeavors, or daydreaming?  The other was a longitudinal study took a group of college students and tracked them for six weeks to see how both of those measures changed over time.

Both groups were also assessed for their perceptions of "meaning in life" -- to what extent did they find any kind of meaning behind their daily experiences?  This, like fantasy-proneness, might take many forms, from conventional religiosity, to spirituality, to connection with other human beings, to dedication to a higher purpose.

The results are fascinating.  The people with higher levels of depression and high fantasy-proneness scored higher on assessments for meaning in life than the ones who were high on measures of depression but low on measures of fantasy-proneness.  Apparently for depressed individuals, our ability to maintain a sense of meaningfulness in life is boosted by our capacity to escape now and again into fantasy worlds.  Interesting, too, is the piece of the sample that showed negative results; individuals low for depression-proneness had no significant correlation between fantasy-proneness and meaning in life.

It seems like if you're not depressed, your capacity for finding meaning doesn't depend on your finding that sense of meaning in the imaginary.

"We found across several studies that the tendency to engage in vivid mental fantasies was related to greater perceptions that life was meaningful, but this was only true for people with high levels of depression," Maffly-Kipp said.  "We speculated that, because depressed people are struggling to find meaning in more typical ways (e.g., religion, social relationships, careers, community, etc.), they might resort to finding it through the engagement with fantasies.  Fantasies are less constrained by reality, more controllable, and might be free from the negativity biases seen in depression.  They could help a person find a sense of belonging and purpose, even if it is imaginary."

N√łkken Som Hvit Hest by Theodor Kittelsen (1907) [Image is in the Public Domain]

Of course, it immediately made me think of my own case.  I have struggled with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember, and ever since I was a child I've not only voraciously read escapist fiction (reading Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time when I was about ten was a transcendent experience), but I've written it, too.  Not that everything I read or write is cheerful, mind you -- if you pick up one of my novels, don't expect that every character is going to have a happy ending, or necessarily even survive to the end.  But what my writing does consistently embody is that there is hope, that there are still selfless, brave, good people in the world, that a powerful cause is worth fighting for, and that love, loyalty, and friendship are the most important things in life.

That some of what I write is spurred by my own attempts to escape the dark, chaotic whirlwind of my own brain, I have no doubt whatsoever.  Maffly-Kipp's study doesn't settle the question of whether we mentally ill people have a higher capacity for inventing fantasy worlds because of some underlying common cause, or if the mental illness came first and trying to escape from it into fantasy worlds evolved later as a coping mechanism; and of course, it could be both, or be different in different people.  Mental illness, like anything having to do with our cognitive apparatus, is a complicated matter, admitting of few easy explanations.

But it does highlight that even those of us who live with depression and anxiety on a daily basis can find ways to manage it -- even if it means leaving the real world at times.

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