Magician and assistant at Schwebetrick (recording from 1982)
Photo: United Archives / Getty Images
Creatives are often seen as tormented souls – some even have a penchant for serious mental health problems. The painter Vincent van Gogh often moved between creativity and illness and painted pictures in a psychiatric ward. The Norwegian Edvard Munch was also once in a Danish mental hospital.
The well-known slogan of "genius and madness" is probably not without reason from a scientific point of view. It would be easy to list other important painters, musicians or writers who fall into this category, such as the pianist David Helfgott, who was once celebrated as a child prodigy and was in psychiatric treatment for years.
A study by Aberystwyth University in Wales in the UK has now identified a group of artists who are apparently better equipped to deal with mental disorders: magicians.
Those who saw up virgins or pulled rabbits out of hats seem to be less susceptible to mental health problems than other creative people, researchers led by evolutionary psychologist Gil Greengross report in the journal BJPsych Open.
For the study, the scientists recruited 195 magicians. People from different age groups were asked through international associations such as the US Society of American Magicians, the British Magic Circle or the International Brotherhood of Magicians, a global association for professional and amateur magicians.
Fewer Key Factors for Mental Disorders
The magicians have taken part in various standardized tests that are commonly used for psychological studies. These included the Oxford-Liverpool Inventory of Feelings and Experiences, a questionnaire designed to measure susceptibility to psychosis and schizotypal personality disorders. Subsequently, the results were compared with those of more than 230 individuals from the general population and also with test results from other creative groups.
In fact, for example, the magicians performed better than the other two groups on three out of four major schizophrenia readings. Illusionists are less likely to suffer from hallucinations or cognitive disorganization, for example, a typical behavior of psychotic people, they say.
According to Greengross, who has a strong interest in the ways creatives such as stand-up comedians or magicians work and think in his research, this is the first study to indicate that a creative group has lower scores of psychotic traits than the general population.
"The results show that the relationship between creativity and psychopathology is more complex than previously assumed," says the expert. In addition, the study points to a mental health profile among magicians that is most similar to that of mathematicians and scientists.
The study does not provide a clear explanation for the psychological stability of magicians. But the resemblance to mathematicians and scientists is no coincidence, according to Greengross. Just as with these professions, magicians require a very high level of precision and technical skill.
Success for magicians is highly dependent on timing and craftsmanship. Their tricks may be creative when they are developed, but on stage, the most important thing is to perform them flawlessly. An "all-or-nothing action," as Greengross writes, which culminates in an element of surprise. Failed magic tricks had a greater impact than unfunny jokes.
The American magician Sara Crasson, who was interviewed by the Guardian for a report on the study, provides another explanation for why magicians seem to be such stable personalities.
It is very common for male magicians in particular to try to overcome a social deficit at a young age, according to Crasson. Magic is a way to gain social status and attention.