‘How many times have people used a pen or paintbrush because they couldn’t pull the trigger?’ – Virginia Wolfe.
I have written elsewhere on this site in several previously published posts how, ultimately, even extremely serious and protracted trauma can lead to what is termed posttraumatic growth which involves an individual developing in ways that would not have occurred had it not been for his / her traumatic experiences.
One such positive outcome which may follow trauma is that of a transformation of the pain one has suffered into acts of creativity – three examples that spring immediately to mind are Dostoevsky’s The House Of The Dead, Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning and Wilde’s De Profundis.
David Aberbach, author of the highly recommended book Surviving Trauma: Loss And Literature, has made a study of the association between trauma (specifically, unresolved grief) and creativity and, in so doing, has drawn several interesting conclusions. I summarise these conclusions below :
- creativity in response to trauma provides a much-needed sense of control after the traumatic experience itself has undermined one’s sense of control.
- the distressing emotional activity can be positively channelled
- one becomes aware of qualities that exist within oneself that have been lying dormant and that would not have been revealed were it not for the traumatic catalyst.
- the trauma itself may not be fully mastered, but a sense of compensation for this can be achieved by mastering something else of significance.
- the creative work may be of great value to others – so something positive has come out of one’s negative experiences, reducing our self-destructive feelings that the time spent living through the trauma has been wasted.
STUDY OF 234 PROFESSIONAL PERFORMERS :
A longitudinal study carried out at California State University found that those who had suffered significantly traumatic childhoods were more likely than those who had experienced relatively stable childhoods to experience intensely creative impulses (as well as psychological pathologies, as firmly established by a vast array of other research, much of which is examined on this site).
The study involved 232 participants comprising :
- 20 musicians and opera singers.
- 129 dancers.
- 83 actors, directors and designers.
Using self-reports provided from the participants, the researchers found those who had suffered extremely high levels of childhood trauma were more prone to internalized shame, anxiety and fantasies.
They also found that this group of participants were more engaged with creative processes and more likely to experience feelings of inspiration.
Furthermore, these individuals were found to be particularly receptive to art in general and had a greater appreciation of the transformational power of creativity.
Based on these findings, the researchers hypothesized that the creative process may be related to an individual’s resilience in the face of adversity.
CHILDHOOD TRAUMA, THE BRAIN, DISSOCIATION AND CREATIVITY :
We have seen from numerous other articles that I have previously published on this site that those who have suffered severe and protracted childhood trauma are at risk of suffering impaired physical development of the brain in regions such as the hippocampus and the amygdala due to the excessive need to be hypervigilant (because of constant fear of a parent or primary caretaker becoming abusive – either emotionally or physically – which can lead to us becoming trapped in a perpetual state of ‘fight or flight’; this, in turn, can lead to the brain being over-exposed to adrenalin as we are growing up, which is one of the factors that cause the physical harm).
However, in such circumstances, the brain can also protect itself by inducing in the trauma victim feelings of dissociation (in relation to this, you may wish to read my previously published articles; ‘Two Opposite Ways The Child Responds To Stress: Hypervigilance And Dissociation’ or ‘Is Your Predominant Response To Trauma Flooding Or Dissociation?’).
Dissociation is a defence mechanism which helps the individual to disconnect mentally from the reality of their traumatic circumstances – so it can be viewed as a self-protective mental escape which may, for example, include going into a ‘fantasy world’ or developing ‘imaginary friends’, (both of which psychologically protective techniques are themselves forms of creativity) – and research suggests (e.g. Ross) that such psychological processes may help protect the brain from physical harm (or, more specifically, from atrophying).
Indeed, there is also increasing evidence of a link between acute dissociative states, ‘hyperassociative cognition’ / ‘fluidity of association’ and creativity (Van der Kloet et al. 2013 / Chakravarty, 2010). Interestingly, too, this area of research has produced evidence suggesting that those who suffer from severe dissociation as a result of trauma are also prone to sleep disturbance and may experience a less deep sleep and more R.E.M. sleep (R.E.M. sleep is the stage of sleep in which we dream/experience nightmares – dreaming/experiencing nightmares, too, of course, are forms creative activity, albeit unconscious ones).
‘All that we see and seem is but a dream within a dream. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.‘ Edgar Allan Poe.
OTHER THEORIES :
- Forgeard (University of Pennsylvania) suggests that those suffering from mental anguish may use creative activities as a form of self-therapy.
- ‘Orphanhood Effect’: This term refers to the theory that those individuals orphaned early in life are more likely than the average individual to develop creative talents (especially as writers). According to Csikszentmihalyi, this phenomenon may be due to the fact that losing one’s parents early in life can lead to social isolation which, in turn, may mean the individual is less likely to be indoctrinated with the kind of socially conventional thinking which could inhibit creativity.
- Shattered Assumptions Theory: If we suffer severe trauma, a frequent effect is that our ‘pre-trauma’ view of the world is ‘shattered’ and, as a result. we see the world ‘through new eyes.’ This can lead to the kind of new and original insights that fuel creativity.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).