Creative minds are vulnerable to mental illness, but magicians escape the curse

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Hieronymus Bosch’s painting of the witch. Credit: Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

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Hieronymus Bosch’s painting of the witch. Credit: Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Can you think of a comedian, actor, poet or writer who has suffered from mental illness? Maybe you thought of actor Robin Williams or comedian Stephen Fry. Perhaps it was the writer Virginia Woolf. All three have had well-documented struggles with bipolar disorder.

Mental illnesses have 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 link, showing that people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia are more likely to work in creative jobs. It also shows that creative groups, including stand-up comedians, artists and scientists, are often more likely to experience challenges with their mental health.

But are all creative people created equal? Our new study, published BJPsych Open:, aimed to find out whether a unique creative group that had never before been studied, magicians, showed similar tendencies to certain mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. We also investigated whether they were more likely to have a neurodivergent disorder such as autism.

Many researchers believe that both mental illness and neurodivergence can promote creative thinking. Scholar Temple Grandin is a famous example of this. He credits his experience of being on the autism spectrum to creating a hug machine that helps animals behave more humanely, and has since been adopted by other autistic people.

Mental health conditions can range from anxiety or depression to personality disorders or psychosis. When someone experiences psychosis, it is measured on a continuum, and only those who experience certain patterns and episodes are diagnosed with schizophrenia.

People who have not been clinically diagnosed with schizophrenia, such as those with fewer episodes of psychosis or less intense symptoms, sometimes experience disorientation and disorganized thinking. This can be difficult for concentration, but can be helpful in stimulating creativity.

Magicians are unique in that they both create their own shows and perform them. In this respect, they are similar to comedians. Most other creative groups either create or perform, but not both. However, unlike comedians, there is much more at stake in a magic performance. If a comedian’s joke fails, it may be unpleasant, but it is unlikely to ruin the whole show.

With a few good jokes that make the audience laugh, a comedian can get back on track. In contrast, one failed magic trick can be disastrous, and chances of recovery during the act can be few and far between.

Therefore, magicians must be extremely precise in their performance and have high technical skills while entertaining the audience. This unique work environment and skill set make them an intriguing creative group to study. We conducted our research with the help of a professional magician.

Magical thinking

Our study included 195 magicians, mostly from the UK and the US, with an average of 35 years of magic experience. This included close up magicians, mentalists, card experts and big stage magicians. The magicians filled out questionnaires that assessed their autistic tendencies and psychotic traits. These were then compared to a sample of non-magicians with a similar age and gender distribution, as well as other creative groups such as comedians, poets, actors and musicians.

The magicians showed no predisposition to autistic traits, scoring similarly to the general population. However, magicians scored lower on almost every symptom of mental disorder compared to the general sample and other creative groups.

In particular, these magicians showed a very high ability to concentrate, low levels of social anxiety, and fewer cases of unusual experiences, distorted thoughts, and hallucinations. All these features greatly benefit the work of magicians, as they allow them to focus and pay attention to their craft without distractions.

The magicians we studied also showed no propensity for 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 performing magic. Magic shows are social events that often involve an audience and sometimes use assistants. So being friendly and personable is a key ingredient to a successful show.

In this respect, magicians are more like scientists, who also score low on psychotic symptoms. Both require a high level of organization and persistence in their work. Furthermore, just as scientists often explore different solutions to the same problem, magicians can perform the same magic trick in many ways.

Magicians differ in the level of creativity in their performances. While some magicians can be exciting and innovative (just look at David Copperfield’s famous flying illusion below), many magicians can build successful careers by performing familiar tricks, sometimes with their own twists, without the need to create new tricks.

Unlike other creative groups who are more flexible in their work and can improvise during their performances, magic shows require discipline and must be repeated exactly the same way for the tricks to work.

The magician’s vow not to reveal the secrets behind the tricks allows them to perform the same tricks over and over again without the audience getting bored, and also preserves the mystery of the act.

Thus, unlike other creative endeavors, mental illness and developmental differences can be counterproductive to a magician’s work. It is possible that aspiring magicians with higher levels of psychotic and autistic traits may find it very difficult to succeed in this profession.

Finally, our study suggests that not all creative individuals are created equal and that the relationship between creativity and psychopathology is more complex than previously thought.

Additional information:
Gill Greengross et al., Psychotic and Autistic Traits of Magicians and Their Relationship to Creative Beliefs, BJPsych Open: (2023). DOI: 10.1192/bjo.2023.609

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