Trauma and Creativity

Photo credit: Lorenzo Maimone

“You must face annihilation over and over again to find what is indestructible in you.”

~Pema Chodron

Over two decades ago Howard Gardner closely examined the lives of creative geniuses in his book Creating Minds. He identified a certain measure of “asynchrony” (unevenness or turbulence of life experience) as a common thread connecting all of his geniuses.  Some of the geniuses he highlighted included Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot and Sigmund Freud.  All suffered a measure of asynchrony at a young very age. Picasso lived through a devastating earthquake at the age of three and later lost a younger sister due to diphtheria. Eliot was a sickly and bedridden child afflicted with a congenital double hernia. Freud’s family was forced to live off scraps due to his father’s bankruptcy.  

Gardner wrote that all of his geniuses “suffered some kind of breakdown when they were still relatively young.” Composer Johann Sebastian Bach, another example of someone who experienced early trauma, lost his mother and father at a young age both within two months of each other. Perhaps overwhelming emotional experiences like Picasso’s, Eliot’s, Freud’s, and Bach’s provide the grit in the belly of the oyster that lacquers and glazes itself into a beautiful pearl. Perhaps, as the work of Miller and Johnson and as Gardner’s case studies suggest, creative potential is an incandescent by-product of suffering.

People who have experienced trauma are often unable to form a coherent narrative about their experiences.  To oversimplify, the memory-storing part of the brain shuts down during emotionally overwhelming events making their traumatic memories disjointed or all together suppressed. As a result, those who have experienced overwhelming suffering carry around a metaphorical bagful of question marks about their past, who they are and what their world represents. A trained trauma therapist can help clients cobbled together enough of the disjointed pieces of their past so that they can move forward in life without chronic feelings of unease.

Photo Credit. Alex Ronsdorf

Some research suggests that those who have experienced trauma possess a greater aptitude for certain types of creativity than those untouched by trauma.  A 2011 study by Robert Miller and David Johnson revealed that PTSD war veterans had a greater capacity for symbolic representation (an essential skill for artistic and scientific endeavors).  Psychologist Dr. Laura K Kerr referenced Miller and Johnson’s work in Does Trauma Increase Creativity?  (2013) and explained “symbolic representation may be particularly necessary for regaining the capacity to express emotions that are avoided.” Essentially, the traumatized brain is on the hunt to make sense of its experiences and, as a result, perhaps develops a new talent for bringing disparate elements together.  Combining unrelated material in a novel way is a core creative skill.  One of the best ways to illustrate the combining of unlike elements is with Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. Gutenberg, a stonecutter and goldsmith by trade, adapted screw elements found in a wine press to develop an assembly-line process of printing that was much more efficient. He merged disparate elements of wine making and typesetting to create the printing press. As a result, for the first time in history, books could be mass produced.  


Similar to the creative process, trauma sufferers grapple to make sense of the disparate elements in their own lives.  One of the goals of healing is to combine memory fragments, emotional wounds, and experiences then step back from the impressionist painting of suffering in order to gain a more panoramic view that “makes sense” to the sufferer. For trauma sufferers, making sense of the trauma may be more similar to the creative process than we think.

A word of caution - rationalizing trauma by “looking at the brighter side” salts the wound. Though perspective born from adversity can be a positive outcome there is never a “good reason” for suffering or victimhood.  Discussing the link between trauma and creativity is meant to help the survivor recognize that they may be, unbeknownst to them, in possession of certain talents that had been quietly cultivated as a result of some of their life’s most challenging moments.

Mary Delaney is a licensed psychotherapist.  Her areas of interest include Reclaiming Lost Emotions, Finding True Purpose, Expressive Arts Therapy, Trauma, Relationships, Attachment, the Creative Personality, and Long-Term Recovery. For more information go to