PSYCHIATRIST SIMON KYAGA
”...by promoting both high and low mood you may increase the likelihood of generating new ideas and create opportunities to elaborate on these." - Simon Kyaga
Please introduce yourself and tell us what you do.
I am Swedish psychiatrist with a Tibetan background fascinated by the mad genius myth. I am researching the mad genius myth using large scale registries and neuroscientific methodology.
Why do you think you ended up in your specific field?
I was lucky to have two really inspiring supervisors Mikael Landén and Paul Lichtenstein; one of them being a psychiatrist and the other one a leading researcher in registry studies. They met one rainy evening in a small restaurant in Stockholm and decided to tackle the question of an association between genius and madness. This question was perfect for me to investigate. I had just finished medical school to start working as a psychiatrist, and was looking for an intriguing subject to research. The fact that I had already met a number of exceptionally creative people in the clinic had made me wonder if the myth of the mad genius was really just a myth.
What happens in the human mind when we are feeling blue?
So a lot of things happen in the mind, but intriguingly one thing is that we seem to assess opportunities more realistically. It turns out that we have an optimism bias which probably has had a survival value. Nevertheless, when we are in a low mood we seem to assess risks more objectively. In addition, low mood also provides a more reflective state which in extreme cases may develop into rumination – a state of endless questioning. Some have suggested that the oscillation between high mood with increased ideation and reflective low mood provides the perfect mix of developing new ideas.
What connections can be found between creativity and melancholy?
Already Aristoteles asked why eminence seems to be associated with melancholia. The idea of an association between melancholia and genius was further expanded during the romantic era. However, it was first in the 1970s that empirical data seemed to link exceptional behavior with manodepressive (bipolar) disorder. In 2011 we published the largest study including more than one million Swedish individuals demonstrating an increased occurrence of creative occupations among patients with bipolar disorder and relatives compared to the general population.
How can you use this melancholic state to your advantage?
It has long been known that your mood is associated with ideation and creative expression. Of course many artists would attest to the need to work consistently rather than to wait for inspiration, but by promoting both high and low mood you may increase the likelihood of generating new ideas and create opportunities to elaborate on these.
What can make you feel melancholic and do you believe it's a benefit in you field to sometimes feel melancholic?
From my own personal experience music, film, nature, weather, and melancholic people are all ways to promote melancholic mood. To what extent personal traits that make you more able to experience melancholia are beneficial, well this is at least what I would suggest that our data indicate in relation to increased propensity towards creative expression.
Do you think that the public perception of mental illness has changed in Sweden? Can people see that it is a benefit in some regard?
Yes, I believe that the public perception is changing. This is a good thing. Very many people suffer mental illnesses, and some of these may indeed have exceptional abilities that could otherwise be missed by both organizations and society as whole. The increased focus on mental illness may also provide increased resources for both treatment and research in this group of patients that have long been neglected.
What is your favorite song to listen to when feeling melancholic?
Antiphon with Hidden Orchestra.
Favorite book that makes you feel melancholic?
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe.
Favorite melancholic movie?
The Third Man by Carol Reed with Orson Welles.
And finally, do you have any favorite art or artist that captures melancholy?
Top image by Esteban Studio.