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Illness as Inspiration

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As for van Gogh, Wolf says the artist seems to have suffered from both undiagnosed manic depression and epilepsy. No treatment -- much less medications -- existed for relieving the artist's "madness." However, the artist's convulsions puzzled doctors. Wolf cites several possible causes. Van Gogh was notorious for tasting his paints, which contained turpentine and could have caused convulsions. Also, to combat sleep difficulties, van Gogh was known to put camphor in his pillow at night -- another cause of convulsions.

And van Gogh drank the liqueur absinthe, "the drink of choice in Paris for van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others," Wolf says. "An overdose of absinthe causes neurons [in the brain] to fire like mad" -- again, causing convulsions.

But at least one professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago reels at what he calls a stereotype -- the mental illness-inspiration link. "That's folklore," Randy Vick, MS, tells WebMD. "Creative people have diabetes, cancer, mental illness. It's a kind of discrimination, a romanticizing of mental illness. It doesn't hold up. People in any field have those tremendous bursts of energy, whether they are carpenters, farmers, or artists. It's a terrible stereotype that's not doing anyone a favor."

Whether medication is detrimental to the creative process is controversial, Rothe tells WebMD. "Some believe a little creativity is lost. ... But the artist who becomes too manic-depressive, too psychotic, or depressed is not functional. The idea with medication is to bring them to the point where they can function but still retain their creativity."

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