If German composer Robert Schumann had lived in the 20th Century, psychiatrists probably would have diagnosed him as suffering from mood disorders complicated by alcoholism, tuberculosis, rheumatism and malaria.
Schumann, who often experienced depressions, delusions, hallucinations and heard imaginary voices that spoke in musical tones, swore that the "little voices" guided creation of his compositions.
In fact, the "Liederkreis" ("Song Cycle"), one of his best-known works, is attributed to an imaginary voice.
Scientists believe that Schumann suffered a form of manic depression. Emotional disorders of this sort have long been associated with artistic personalities, and the link has been confirmed in medical literature.
More recent popular theories contend that the behavior of artists, writers and musicians differs from that of other people in the population because of differences in brain hemisphere dominance.
In Schumann's case, then, was his mental torment--his madness--a result of environmental factors or a function of a brain that developed differently?
'There Is a Myth'
Neuroscientists generally agree that although there indeed may be a link between creative genius and psychosis, theories of brain hemisphere dominance in the truly creative have not been founded in fact.
"There is a myth that music happens in the right side of the brain and that art happens on the left; that's simply fallacious," said Dr. Peter Ostwald, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center.
"What we do know is that any truly creative production, something that's original, daring and authentic, requires an integration of both hemispheres of the brain," the psychiatrist said.
Ostwald, who specializes in studies of creative genius and madness, spent 10 years studying Schumann by way of the composer's music, letters and accounts of his illnesses recorded at a Vienna mental hospital.
He believes that in Schumann's case, creativity functioned not because of an apparent mental illness, but in spite of it.
'Symmetrical and Equal'
USC neuroscientist Joseph Hellige said one reason it has become popular to view the brain's two hemispheres as separate entities may be that "from the time that we're very little, we start forming ideas about dichotomies."
"And for many years it was believed that both sides of the brain were symmetrical and equal in their function," he said.
"In recent years we have discovered that there are anatomical differences . . . but we don't how these differences translate into differences in behavior," he said.
What scientists do know is that specific sites in the left and right sides of the cerebral cortex--the two hemispheres of the brain--are responsible for controlling the opposite sides of the body.
More precisely, the right hemisphere is associated with perception of nonverbal visual patterns, melody and emotion, Hellige explained, and the left side is associated with verbal skills.
"Creativity is complex and involves a number of different components, each of which can be called creative, so it's difficult to say that just one aspect of the brain would control it," he said.
Ostwald said that the relationship between creativity and mental health is not always clear-cut, however, and that many artists, musicians and even scientists suffer from "a bipolar affective disorder," or manic depressive illness.
Historical figures noted for their creativity who also suffered bipolar affective disorders include 19th-Century artist Vincent Van Gogh and 20th-Century poets Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell.
James Barrie, the creator of "Peter Pan"; composer Johann Brahms; Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey; and Winston Churchill are also believed to have suffered from similar disorders.
Ostwald defines a bipolar disorder as mood abnormalities marked by severe depression and slowing of behavior at one pole, and excessive feelings of joy accompanied by a speeding up of thought and behavior at the other.
"Schumann's case is one of those where one does find a relationship between creativity and madness.
"We know that in this kind of disorder that Schumann (apparently suffered) that there's a disturbance in the neurotransmitters of the brain, and we now know a good deal about how to reverse that," Ostwald said.
Drugs that alter neurotransmission--the movement of nerve impulses--in the brain result in obvious changes in behavior.
"Lithium reduces the cyclic swings in the bipolar condition," Ostwald said. "We don't know precisely how it works, but there's no evidence that it inhibits creativity."
Dr. Robert Prien, a psychopharmacologist at the National Institute of Mental Health near Washington, said several hypotheses regarding how lithium affects the brain have surfaced over the last decade.
None of the ideas has definitely shown how the chemical affects neurotransmission and alters behavior, he added.