CREATIVITY AND MENTAL HEALTH IN THE PROCESS OF POSITIVE DISINTEGRATION (paper for the 5th International Conference on The Theory of Positive Disintegration, USA, Florida, August 2002) [EN]Tadeusz Kobierzycki Ph.D.
Here are the most important theories and findings regarding the link between exceptional abilities and different types of mental health.
Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-1980), a distinguished Polish psychiatrist, psychotherapist and philosopher, author of an existential conception of personality, creativity and mental health. Soon he became responsible for a major breakthrough in the diagnosis of certain phenomena of mental disorder such as nervousness, neurosis, psychoneurosis and psychosis. When creating his own psychology and psychopathology of creativity, Dabrowski refers to ideas and works of Edouard de Claparede, Jean Piaget, Carl G. Jung (Switzerland), Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Stekel (Austria), Ernst Kretschmer (Germany) and Cesare Lombrozo (Italy), creating his own conception of personal development.
The author’s first attempt to analyze creative personalities can be found in his doctoral thesis titled “Psychological Bases of Self-Mutilation”, published in Warsaw in 1934 (and Boston, in USA 1937). The first analyses examine the personalities of Michael Angelo, Blaise Pascal, Fyodor Dostoyewski, Otto Weininger, Miguel de Unamuno, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust etc.
Kazimierz Dabrowski carried out his research on the relationship between mental disorder and creative processes at the State Institute of Mental Hygiene (1935-1949) as well as at the Institution of Mental Hygiene and Child Psychiatry of the Polish Academy of Sciences (1958-1965). The results of his investigation were published and announced in various forms. The most significant of all were the report of his studies in 1963 and the articles published in 1965, 1979 and 1983 (the last one after his death in 1980). Here are the most important theories and findings regarding the link between exceptional abilities and different types of mental health.
Key terms and their definitions
For a better introduction, it is essential to convey the author’s understanding of the examined reality through the terms he used. The key ones are: exceptional abilities, nervousness, neurosis, psychoneurosis and mental health – all of which are in a synthesis inside the structure of a developed personality
1. Exceptional abilities – are “qualities or skills that enable one to achieve, in different areas of human life, results that exceed the average standard for the person’s age group, education etc.” (K. Dabrowski 1965, 2 p. 54).
During the introductory tests, it was found that people with specific abilities (i.e. who had the gift for acting, the art of dance, painting and music) would reach an IQ of 110 to 155 points, whereas those with abilities of a general nature (i.e. in humanities, mathematics, natural sciences) obtained from 120 to 146 points. The tests were carried out on children and young people between the age 8 and 23.
2. Mental health – is “the development towards higher levels of mental functions, towards the discovery and realization of higher cognitive, moral, social, aesthetic and religious values and their organization into hierarchy in accordance with one’s own authentic personality ideal.” (K. Dabrowski 1972, p. 298).
3. Nervousness, neurosis, psychoneurosis – the important sign of participated development of personality is nervousness, i.e. psychic overexcitability in the five forms: sensual, psychomotor, imaginative, emotional and intellectual. Nervousness leads to the loosening and disintegration of original forms of mental organization, creating and integrating specific forms of neurosis and psychoneurosis on a higher level than the one that is disintegrating. Somatic disorders are typical of the first, while the forms of the latter manifest themselves through mental disorders in the psychoneurotic structure without producing physical signs. Disintegration through these forms does not produce such signs. Both forms can disintegrate and integrate the psyche.
It would be inappropriate to define them according to the common belief as exclusively negative manifestations of mental health and not see them as positive symptoms.
The range of the tests (Warsaw, 1962 year)
In the autumn of the year 1962, K. Dabrowski supervised tests carried out by a team of doctors and psychologists. Amongst them were students from art colleges who had been described by their teachers as exceptionally talented and chosen equally, high school students. The first group consisted of 50 individuals, the second – 30.
The remaining group consisted of people with intellectual deficiency (oligophrenics). Among all these people, there were 10 who had been “spotted” during the preparations for tests on individuals with abilities and 20 who had been included in the tests on the ground of earlier diagnosis from Dabrowski’s hospital file.
All the children were examined by a general practitioner, a neurologist and a psychiatrist. The tests involved an interview on the individual’s background and information regarding his/her pre-natal life and family social situation. The report of these tests was published in its shortened version in 1963 in the “Bulletin of The Polish Society of Mental Hygiene” in Warsaw.
Due to the restraints imposed by the article, I will concentrate mainly on the diagnostic terminology regarding those individuals who were found exceptionally gifted, and I will not include the information on oligophrenics.
Traditional terms of mental conditions used to describe the psychological phenomena acquired new meaning. Each condition was recognized to have 3 stages:
1. In stage 1, there was a marked illness that distorted the psyche and the personality, strong tendencies towards aggression or suicide, distinct psychosomatic disorders and a profound distemper of the “function of reality” (by French psychiatrist, Pierre Janet).
2. In stage 2, the level of mental disorders observed was average, of cyclic and repetitive nature.
3. In stage 3, the registered and increased mental activity and phenomena such as temporary physical agitation, mood-swings, impulsive behavior, a slight tendency to act and mild reactions of anxiety.
Dynamics of inner-psychic reactions
In order to differentiate processes from mental structures, professor K. Dabrowski introduced the term of the “inner psychic milieu”. It comprises abilities, talents, interests determined by the individual’s heritage (factor I), the outside, social world (factor II), and the individual’s own activity (factor III). These create mental, emotional and imaginative dynamics. On these founds the following were activated: self-discovery, self-education and self-directing as processes of identification and the building of one’s own self. They also permit the assimilation, transformation and unification of the material of the unconscious with the conscious, which enables profound insight. They stimulate the development of personality and expand the individual’s perception of the inner-psychic tension.
All those examined were said to have an increased mental activity and be associated with in inappropriate reactions, which provided bases for the creation of conditions of neurosis or psychoneurosis. There was no evidence of outside influence as the cause of these types of reactions, and the living and schooling conditions were said to be satisfactory. It was discovered however that nearly half of the people examined did not have an adequately dynamic inner psychic milieu and did not attempt to exercise self-directing. This was partly due to the age difference, the psychophysical type, kinds of abilities and nature of the social family situations.
Attention was brought to the kind of inner psychic world, which is the criterion to differentiate the levels of development and the types of mental disorders that accompany it.
Creative processes of disintegration
The type of abilities, talent, interests and type of emotionality, mentality and imagination, create, being the main dynamic forces of the inner psychic milieu, a certain type of personality development. They accelerate it, leading to a mental crisis of the present arrangement of the outer and inner-psychic integration.
This crisis produces a new constellation, which is diagnosed as neurosis or psychoneurosis, depending on the prevailing symptoms (somatic or psychic).
This constellation tends to evolve as well as dissolve (Polish neo-evolutionist, professor of psychiatry at Warsaw University, Jan Mazurkiewicz). In the case of evolution, a higher level of neurotic or psychoneurotic integration is created. In the case of dissolution, the reverse occurs. Observations of this kind made a distinction of two groups of individuals, whose level of evolution and dissolution was established by indicating the inner psychic world.
Everyone who was examined, irrespectively of his/her type of abilities at school, in the case of a poor and undeveloped inner psychic milieu (therefore poor abilities and interests as well as a lack of talent) there was a prevailing hysterical and neurasthenic disintegration. In the case of a developed inner psychic milieu, the dominating were anxiety and psychostenic disintegration. A more detailed picture of the dynamics of disintegration and integration is shown below.
Inner, neurotic or psychoneurotic changes
|Type of school
weak or lack
weak or lack
initial or developed
|1. Drama school||1. psychostenia
|2. Art school||
4. vegetative psychosis
|3. Ballet school||
|1. vegetative psychosis
|4. High school||
For a clearer understanding of the illustrated test, it is essential to ask the question: Does the tendency towards psychoneurosis produce a necessity to reconstruct (through disintegration) a system of personality integration? Or is it that the power of the inner psychic milieu, i.e. a significant mental aptitude that automatically distorts the higher levels of the function of reality (Pierre Janet) causing a psychoneurotic reaction or indeed a dissolution or evolution?
Emotional positive disintegration in gifted individuals
The definition of the dynamics of neurosis and psychoneurosis constituted Dabrowski’s fundamental discovery and was an outcome of tests carried out on gifted individuals. He called into question the static definitions of neurosis and psychoneurosis, which reduced their role merely to describe destructive states of mental disintegration.
For he noticed, that both neurosis and psychoneurosis were subject to evolution and moved onto higher or lower levels. What indicated this type of evolution were the disorders characteristic of various levels and which Dabrowski described in a multi-level model of personality.
In this definition, personality is the objective of development (final personality, developed personality, complete personality etc.), which departs from the personality at birth and continues through prolonged modifications. They could be described as modal personality forms or as a modal personality.
One of the aspects of a modal personality is the process of disintegration, which becomes positive through connection with the other aspect, defined by Dabrowski, as the inner milieu. The latter is stimulated by disintegration processes, but its function is to integrate and thus avoid the break-up and destruction of the modal personality, which could turn into a psychotic one.
Only when the final personality is formed, can the psychoneurotic processes be weakened and allow for signs of self-knowledge, growth and self-esteem. Until this happens, the process will be constantly reinforced by neurotic or psychoneurotic sources, depending on the constellation: heritage, social environment, personal activity.
The analysis of artists’ personalities has shown progressive, and therefore positive effect of neurosis and psychoneurosis, which in fact improved the state of mental health. Both were linked to the activity of the inner milieu, which in itself forms the source of self-therapeutic forces.
The phenomenon of creative depression
As to achieve a better illustration of the theory of positive disintegration, I will attempt to demonstrate my own interpretation of the relationship between depression and creativity. The source of inspiration have been my personal talks with K. Dabrowski, which took place in Warsaw, in the space of many years, his publications and also my own investigations, hospital practice and experiments in therapy which I performed at the Student’s School of Mental Hygiene (Warsaw, 1984-1994)1, established and directed by myself. This interpretation bears strict connection with the theory of positive disintegration.
Depression, in traditional terms, is a post-ecstatic reaction, which adopts regressive or self-repressive forms. The metaphor of depression is a descent, a fall, or degradation (Lat. gradus – grade, degree, level). The main consequence is the decrease of tension between the conscious and the unconscious of the individual. The arrangement of tensions in this system becomes inactive, unproductive and distorted.
The person who is entering the sphere of depression perceives the world as gray, colorless, dull and indifferent. The old “passion of the night” (of the German existentialist-philosopher Karl Jaspers), that once stirred the artist, now transforms itself into a dying “night of the soul”(of the Spanish Christian mystic, Saint John of the Cross). Other defense mechanisms fail to work efficiently.
For an artist, depression is a cleansing force as it extracts and separates him from his work. It has to occur periodically, just like it occurs when parents have to release their child to live his/here own life. Such a release allows to undertake new creation. Otherwise the artist copies himself, goes over what he has already done, abuses his work and himself, loosing slowly his vigor and pleasure from working. If he acted like this, he would expose himself to worse pain and suffering than he would be if he treated his depression as a natural factor of development or self-therapy.
Psychoanalysists, (e.g. the Polish-American analytical therapist Gustaw Bychowski), emphasized the significance of the role of compensation and sublimation in a creative process. Depression undoubtedly plays such role and is one of the dynamisms in these processes. This relation can be reserved. Nevertheless it is a lasting constellation and unless one immerses in it, no drugs or psychoanalysis or psychotherapy will help. Only a deep, truly depressive decline will permit the artist to see himself anew, without the masks, which are his works.
Naturally, this journey into oneself, this separation, loneliness and autism can result in insanity or suicide. But the artist is protected by his rich psychic “inner milieu”. Nevertheless, once he finds himself in a critical state, he is capable of damaging and destroying his works, (e.g. the Italian sculptor, Michael Angelo) that he has done, or injuring himself (e.g. the Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh).
Others may feel “sterile” for a long time, “empty”, “dead”. Often they renounce their creative activity. What is that determines that in one case there should emerge, after a phase of creative depression, a “creative drive”, a kind of madness and mania, while in a different case, it can bring an unfortunate end to the artist.
I believe that depression not only disintegrates and separates but in can also, after a long explosion or creative ecstasy, execute the role of an “oppressive body”, through which it is possible to feed the unconscious, empty of conflicts, with new contents. There is a chance to form a new creative incentive, one that would suit the artist’s now broader conscious which managed to appease previous creative urge, ecstasy, exhibitionism”. What used to be “superior” is now “inferior”.
The “depressiveness” that substituted the conscious and had control over the unconscious of the artist, now acquire a new scope and cease to play the role of creative dynamisms. He could well fall into psychosis which is known for its lack of projection and mixing of the conscious with the unconscious.
Depression therefore immunizes against mental illness, it postpones it, it is its counter-model. Depression assimilates and assembles the tendencies do distort perception. Exceptional gifts do not protect from depression. Their presence transforms depression into a “creative humility”. Both the euphoric and serene experiences undergo synthesis.
Phenomenon of creativeness in oligophrenics
In the case when the personality of gifted people can be differentiated by their world and the specific sequence of neurosis and psychoneurosis, what could be said about people with a low IQ? After all they too engage in creative activities, K. Dabrowski had stated that in the case of mental deficiency, the development of vegetative neurosis combined with strong psychophysical and sensual overexcitability, and an overactive sexual drive are typical. “What sets them apart are also primitive manifestations of phobia, indifference, euphoria, little susceptibility to suggestions, lack of modesty, excessive talking etc.”(K. Dabrowski, 1963, 2, 61). From the psychoanalytical point of view, they should be the most creative. But the reality is different, if we disregard of course the creativity of the-so-called “naïve”, “inexperienced”, “savage” artists, whose mythical air attracts attention (e.g. the works of H. Rousseau /France/, M.A. Moses /USA/, Th. Ociepka /Poland/, N. Pirosmanai /Georgia/, Ch. Theofilos /Greece/ or of a Polish-Ukranian naïve painter Nikifor Krynicki.
It seems to me that there is another way of differentiating the creativity of oligophrenics and the not so talented people besides contrasting neurosis with the “creative work” and psychic “inner milieu”. It is also possible using the concept of a “creative instinct”, which can be found in the theory of positive disintegration, already on the second developmental level
The marked feature of this instinct is the overactive function of the parameter of movement and energy, when the activity of Gnostic and emotional parameter of creative instinct, is low. For oligophrenics the values revolves inside the sphere of sensory experiences (e.g. the best life can offer is favorite food, someone who gives you something, the worst fears concern hitting, physical injury, noise or being called names etc.).
Oligophrenics’ shallow emotionality allows them to talk about tragic incidents with indifference. In this situation, creativity serves to project these feeling, whose nature is often sexualized, erotic, fairy-tale like and even when the protagonists look demonic, like stereotypes, or are modified through a grammatical stream of thought. Its function is preventative while it brings together prelogic contents that are slowly emerging out of the unconscious and which oligophrenics find fascinating and whose eroticism attracts many people.
In this work I tried to outline Dabrowski’s investigative vision and conclusions which have never been presented before. I have left out numerous episodes such as the former debate with Neo-Jacksonists (e.g. polish psychiatrist Jan Mazurkiewicz, Swiss psychiatrist Constantin von Monakov etc.) and with psychoanalysts.
Nor have I presented the issue of the psychotherapy that Dabrowski performed with the artists and for the artists as well as for gifted children, youth and adults. This subject is looked into as research on creativity, in which the educational aspects are more stressed, and not clinical. Hence I think the portrayal of the personality of gifted children and youth is too positive, too reliable on compulsory “American optimism” (maybe „Polish pessimism” is talking through me)
For many years Dabrowski claimed that children and youth who were gifted, always showed a greater psychic sensitivity and fainted to intense manifestations of psychoneurosis. Both classify the “psychic milieu” and impose the level of personality development and define the type of creativity.
Some American authors, although they appreciate these perceptions, do not know what to do with them. The idea of connecting the theory of positive disintegration with A. Maslow’s theory of self-realization, seems interesting to my and useful but it disguises the dramatic character of creative development. The American reception of the theory of positive disintegration is according to me and the Polish perspective too mitigated.
I have also left out the primer question of creative thinking, described by K. Dabrowski in the report from 1963 year. I believe that what I have presented can be impetus for a debate and new studies concerning the personality of gifted humans, who link their passion to evolve with the passion to create.
1 In Poland the term student refers to a university or polytechnic level of education.
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