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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 2

From Contretemps to Creativity

For some people, hardship can trigger creative growth



THINKSTOCK (lightbulb); ISTOCKPHOTO (woman)

“I paint in order not to cry,” artist Paul Klee once remarked. The artist suffered from an autoimmune disease, which crippled his hands and made it difficult for him to even hold a pen. Yet he painted obsessively. His turmoil seemed to release an outpouring of creative energy.

Systematic research has shown that many eminent creators—think of Frida Kahlo, the Brontë sisters or Stephen Hawking—endured harsh early life experiences, such as social rejection, parental loss or disability. A growing field of research, called post-traumatic growth, now seeks to unveil why adversity and ingenuity sometimes go hand in hand and why some people blossom more than others in the wake of trying times.

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