Study: Performing artists who suffered in childhood tend to have more intense creative experiences

New research suggests there is a link between childhood adversity and creative experiences. According to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, performing artists who experienced more abuse, neglect or family dysfunction in childhood tend to have a more intense creative process.

“We began this study approximately fifteen years ago. The notion that artists and performing artist suffered more pathology, including bipolar, disorder troubled us. No one seemed willing to also include the effects of early childhood adversity and adult trauma and its influence on creativity and psychopathology,” explained study author Paula Thomson, a professor at California State University, Northridge.

“This study reflects years of dedicated research. In general, the performing artists in our sample who experienced a high amount of trauma may suffer more pathology but they also thrive with heightened flow experiences and value the creative process as a healing and meaningful component in their lives.”

The researchers surveyed 83 actors, directors, and designers; 129 dancers; and 20 musicians and opera singers regarding adversity they faced in childhood. The scientific questionnaire assessed emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; emotional and physical neglect; and household dysfunction (such as domestic violence, substance abuse, and divorce.)

The artists with more childhood adversity were more likely to be more fantasy prone, experience more shame and anxiety, and had experienced more traumatic events.

But the researchers found that artists who experienced more childhood adversity tended to also report more intense creative and existential experiences. For example, those who experienced more childhood adversity were more likely to agree with the following statements regarding the artistic process:

  • The creative process made me feel more secure, as though it was ‘containing’ my volatile emotional/mental state.
  • The experience had a spiritual or mystical quality, particularly due feeling that I was coming in contact with a larger, more powerful force.
  • There seemed to be a breakdown between myself and what I was creating—I was what I was writing/playing/painting.
  • There seemed to be an internal logic to the creative production. The experience involved being receptive to this and ‘following’ this logic.
  • I regard my creative pursuits as a means of coping with and dealing with aspects of life, as though it gives me greater control over these aspects of life.

“Engaging in the creative process offers meaning and a deeper sense of a connected self despite experiencing childhood adversity. The need to encourage creative activities in educational and work settings offers a powerful antidote to potential devastating physical and psychological effects associated with childhood adversity,” Thomson told PsyPost.

“We are saddened by the number of participants in our study who have suffered multiple forms of childhood adversity as well as adult assaults (both sexual and non-sexual). So many participants in our sample have experienced poly-traumatization and yet they also embrace their passion for performance and creativity. They are embracing ways to express all that is human.”

Thomson said future research will examine the physical health of artists with a history of trauma.

“We have collected physiological data that is currently being analyzed to determine the physiological effects of cumulative trauma in individuals who engage in creative activities compared to those who do not engage in these activities,” she explained. “We want to know the relationship between the body and the mind, in short, an embodied self that engages in creative activities.”

The study, “Childhood Adversity and the Creative Experience in Adult Professional Performing Artists“, was authored by Paula Thomson and S. V. Jaque.