We know that certain functions of the body shut down when a person is faced with a threatening situation. This allows other parts to become more active. Larger sets of muscles receive more blood as heart rate increases, allowing for the well-documented “fight-or-flight” response. While the body tenses and readies to “respond,” some areas of the brain become less active. Hence, the ability to process emotional responses and store memories during a traumatic event can be impaired while pre-programmed survival mechanisms kick in.
For some, this will lead to a condition known as PTSD (posttraumatic stress). The intense emotions associated with an unintegrated traumatic memory can impair normal functioning in daily life for those experiencing PTSD. Read more about this here.
Not everyone experiencing a traumatic event will go on to develop PTSD. However, for those that do, PTSD is treatable. Eventually, there can actually be benefits that result from a well-integrated traumatic event. This is called posttraumatic growth.
Many people experience a meaningful improvement in their psychological outlook on life after a traumatic or life-altering event. For example, after a near-death experience, some report a renewed zest for living, an intense wonder at the beauty of the natural world that surrounds them, and a deeply felt sense of purpose not previously recognized.
In one study, Robert James Miller II and David Read Johnson noted an increased capacity for symbolic thinking in a group of 56 Vietnam War veterans who experienced PTSD. From the abstract: “Unexpectedly, subjects with PTSD in comparison to subjects without PTSD showed greater capacity for symbolic representation, and no difference in lexical capacity, raising new questions as to the mechanism by which trauma could increase the capacity for mental imagery.”
It’s possible that in order to avoid re-experiencing a traumatic event (because memories of the event have not been properly stored), some people unknowingly strengthen their ability to think symbolically as a coping mechanism. Since we know that symbolic thinking is a cornerstone of the creative process, can an unexpected benefit of trauma be an increase in creativity?
Surges in Creativity
There is compelling evidence that suggests surges in creativity could be linked to the experience of trauma. Dr. Marie Forgeard conducted an online study to investigate this idea. An online questionnaire was filled out by participants, whose answers were used to measure posttraumatic growth, rumination related to the event, and growth of creativity. Forgeard used two measures in the study: (1) scores on a measure of posttraumatic growth and depreciation and (2) scores on self-reported measures of creativity in the aftermath of adversity.
She found that “… adversity-induced distress predicted self-reported creative growth and breadth in a sample of online participants. Cognitive processing [intrusive/deliberative rumination] as well as domains of posttraumatic growth/depreciation—in particular, self-reported changes in interpersonal relationships and in the perception of new possibilities for one’s life—mediated the link between self-reported distress and creativity outcomes.”
It is important to note that intrusive rumination describes a process where the individual is primarily focused on the symptoms of the distress being experienced as opposed to solutions for these symptoms. On the other hand, deliberate rumination is a process by which an individual turns inward and engages in reflection along with contemplation about various problem-solving possibilities.
Creative Therapy and Deliberate Rumination
Given the links between trauma and creativity that are being uncovered, creative therapies such as art therapy or expressive writing, coupled with supported deliberate rumination practice, could be beneficial in the recovery process for individuals wishing to deal with the aftermath of traumatic, life-altering events and/or full-blown PTSD.
- Miller II, Robert James, and Johnson, David Read. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Vol. 4(1), Jan 2012, 112-116. doi: 10.1037/a0021580. Retrieved 3/21/14 from: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/tra/4/1/112/
- Thompson, Paula. The Traumatized Imagination: Creativity, Trauma, and the Neurobiology of the Resilient Spirit. Retrieved 3/21/14 from: http://www.healingresources.info/article_thomson1.htm
- Forgeard, Marie J. C. Perceiving Benefits after Adversity: The Relationship Between Self-Reported Posttraumatic Growth and Creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Vol. 7(3), Aug 2013, 245-264. doi: 10.1037/a0031223. Abstract retrieved on 3/21/14.
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