Can you think of a comedian, actor, poet or writer who suffered from mental illness? Perhaps actor Robin Williams or comedian Stephen Fry came to mind. Maybe it was the writer Virginia Woolf. All three had well-documented struggles with bipolar disorder.
Mental illness has 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 more likely to face challenges related to their mental health.
But are all creative people created equal? Our new study, published in BJPsich Open, aims to investigate whether a unique creative group that had never been studied before magicians showed similar tendencies to some mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. We also looked at whether they were more likely to have a neurodivergent difference, such as autism.
Many researchers believe that both mental illness and neurodivergence can enhance creative thinking. The scientist Temple Grandin is a famous example of this. She credits her experience on the autism spectrum for developing a hug machine that helps handle livestock in a more humane way, later 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, with only those experiencing certain patterns and episodes being diagnosed with schizophrenia.
People who have not been clinically diagnosed with schizophrenia, for example, such as those with fewer episodes or less intense symptoms of psychosis, sometimes experience mind wandering and disorganized thinking. This can be challenging to focus on, but can be helpful in stimulating creativity.
Magicians are unique in that they both create and perform their own shows. In that sense, 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 can be embarrassing, but it’s unlikely to ruin the entire show.
With a few good jokes that make the audience laugh, the comedian can get back on track. Conversely, one failed magic trick can be disastrous, and your chances of recovering during the act can be few and far between.
Magicians, therefore, have to be extremely precise in their performance and possess high technical skills, while at the same time entertaining the audience. This unique work environment and skill set make them an intriguing creative group to learn from. We conducted our own research with the help of a professional magician.
Our study included 195 magicians, primarily from the UK and USA, with an average of 35 years of experience performing magic. This included close-up magicians, mentalists, card experts and big stage magicians. Magicians filled out questionnaires assessing their tendencies toward autistic and psychotic traits. They were then compared to a sample of non-magicians of a similar age range and gender distribution, as well as to other creative groups such as comedians, poets, actors and musicians.
Magicians did not show any predisposition to autistic traits, achieving results similar to the general population. However, magicians scored lower on nearly every psychotic symptom compared to the general sample and other creative groups.
In particular, these magicians showed a very high ability to concentrate, a lower level of social anxiety and fewer cases of unusual experiences, distorted thoughts and hallucinations. All these qualities are very useful for the work of magicians, as they allow them to focus and pay attention to their craft without distraction.
The magicians we studied also showed no tendency toward antisocial behavior and had good self-control. While these traits are valuable for many creative groups, such as artists and comedians, they are less critical for a magic show. Magic shows are social events, often involving an audience and sometimes using assistants. So being friendly and polite is a key ingredient to a successful show.
In this respect, magicians are more similar to scientists who also score poorly on psychotic symptoms. Both require a high level of organization and perseverance in work. Furthermore, just as scientists often explore different solutions to the same problem, magicians can perform the same magic trick in multiple ways.
Magicians differ in the level of creativity in their performances. While some magicians can be edgy and innovative (just look at David Copperfield’s famous flying illusion below), many magicians can build successful careers by performing well-known tricks, sometimes with their own tweaks, without having to create new tricks.
Unlike other creative groups that have more flexibility in their work and can improvise during their performances, magic shows require discipline and must be repeated in exactly the same way for the tricks to work.
A magician’s oath not to reveal the secrets behind the tricks allows them to perform the same tricks repeatedly without boring the audience 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 magicians with higher levels of psychotic and autistic traits have a very difficult time succeeding in this profession.
Finally, our study illustrates that not all creative individuals are created equal, and the relationship between creativity and psychopathology is more complex than previously thought.
Gil Greengross et al, Psychotic and Autistic Traits Among Magicians and Their Relationship to Creative Beliefs, BJPsich Open (2023). DOI: 10.1192/bjo.2023.609
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