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Bob Dylan, depression and creativity

April 9, 2012

Jonah Lehrer wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian about the neuroscience of creativity, which attracted some critical comments from fans who were not keen on his attempt to link the creative process to particular regions of the brain ( Some were even more unhappy with his even calling Dylan a genius.

But Lehrer makes a very interesting point in the article, with implications far beyond creativity. He describes Dylan in May 1965, slumped in a room in the Savoy Hotel in London, drained and demotivated in spite of acclaim and sell-out concerts. He tells the interviewer that it’s tiring having people tell you how much they admire you when you don’t admire yourself. Depressed and exhausted, he tells his manager he is going to quit the music business.

Lehrer argues that feeling like that is part of the creative process – that feeling ‘stuck’, demotivated and depressed may be an essential part of the whole business of being creative. But creativity is not just about art – it is about the whole business of living. Millions of people are having to face up to really bad financial, health or relationship problems and doing that requires as much creativity as it does guts.

If Lehrer is right, then perhaps the bad feelings that these problems cause may become a tad more tolerable if people can see them as part of the process of facing up to them, as part of the creative response to the bad things life throws up at people.

There is a long tradition of great thinkers reporting going into states of low mood and despair before some great insight comes upon them – Kekule’s mental discovery of the benzene ring for instance –  though in general creativity plummets while people are deeply depressed. But low mood may in some cases help to ‘shake up’ mental processes,  but to use that means maintaining a certain detachment from it. The great clinical psychologist John Teasdale and his colleagues have shown that mindfulness methods can be combined with cognitive therapy methods to reduce the chance of relapse into depression. Mindfulness entails a certain detachment from one’s thoughts and emotions.

Who knows whether Bob Dylan was actually depressed or was just being Dylan. But ‘reframing’ low mood as being a necessary part of solving difficult problems can help some people. The French phrase ‘reculer pour mieux sauter’ – pull back to be able to jump better – may have its psychological counterpart, if Lehrer is right.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2012 10:32 am

    Thanks; your piece and Jonah Lehrer’s article are an interesting insight into creativity

  2. August 5, 2012 11:58 am

    You may find ‘Out of the Dark Woods – Dylan, Depression and Faith’ to be of interest. The lyrics of the curiously titled album ‘Time out of Mind’ reveal depression, explaining the 7 year creative gap prior to its release.

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