Alterpoint – The Tangled Ways of Creativity

A cluttered desk, a crowded city, a troubled mind…the imagery associated with creativity is not simple or conventional. Even though there is some generalization involved in these vignettes, they do help us better appreciate the nature of creative work.

Think creativity and most of us may come up with a certain mental image, one formed of lines criss-crossing in random, colourful and spontaneous patterns. This free form representation often carries over into our view of creative individuals and their workspaces. We think of messy artist lofts, cluttered writing cabins, grungy music dens and similar settings marked by a lack of order and structure.

There may be a degree of over-generalization here but there is still evidence – both scientific and anecdotal – to support portions of this view.

For instance, a study conducted at the University of Minnesota looked at the effects of a messy environment on creative output. The researchers who ran the experiment found that while participants who were placed in a cluttered space were less likely to make healthy or even charitable choices, they were more inclined to creativity and innovation.

Concluded Kathleen Vohs, a psychology scientist and the lead researcher in the study: “Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries, and societies want more of: Creativity.”

We cannot infer from this that messiness always yields creativity or that organized people cannot be creative. Correlation, as statisticians like to say, does not imply causation.

Still, the link between creativity and chaos cannot be ignored because it works even when extended to the broader surroundings of creative people, beyond intimate workspaces. It is probably no coincidence that creative individuals gravitate to cities in their quest for sensory stimulation. Many writers call New York City home despite rising rents and prices in recent times. The artist Frida Kahlo spent her entire life in Mexico City, the Western Hemisphere’s most densely populated metropolis. Theatre actors and performers living in a congested Mumbai feed off of the city’s vitality and dynamism.

These individuals seek creative inspiration from their urban settings, siphoning entropy into works of art. While peace and quiet and the seclusion of a rural retreat may be useful for the actual act of creating, a certain amount of unbridled energy is needed to fuel ideas.

Beyond crowds and congestion, cities also offer opportunities for stimulating interaction and provide the kind of rhythm and backdrop that leads to innovative music, art or literature. This is the quality that has earned Chennai a prime spot on the cultural map and London its reputation as a literary city.

The aspect of creativity that has been most studied and chronicled, however, is that of volatility. Throughout history and across the world, creative brilliance has often been accompanied by varying levels of personal dysfunction and instability. We know that Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and many others like them battled depression, bipolar disorder and emotional turmoil during the course of their lives. Their struggles give validation to the phrase, ‘tortured genius’ and have been at the center of several engrossing books and movies. ‘A Beautiful Mind’, for example, gives us a peek into the life and mind of John Nash, an American mathematician who dealt with paranoid schizophrenia on his way to winning a Nobel Prize in Economics.

The question that then arises (and one also voiced during our panel discussion on the creative process in late March) is this: Does creativity exist despite this mental turbulence, or because of it?

Again, neuroscientists have established that the connection is not purely coincidental. According to Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson, the brain circuitry that results in creativity could also lead to certain forms of psychosis. Carson theorizes that creativity and psychopathology have a ‘shared vulnerability’ that can manifest itself in positive or negative ways or both. This explains why not every creative individual is mentally disturbed and vice versa.

Clutter, chaos, craziness…the labels that come with the creative domain are not always applicable or justified. However, there is a link through which one often feeds the other. It allows us to better understand the individuals who inhabit this realm as well as their idiosyncrasies. Most importantly, it allows us to appreciate that great work can and often does emerge from the tangled states of physical and mental clutter.


1) Tidy Desk or Messy Desk –

2) What Neuroscience Says About the Link Between Creativity and Madness –