What differentiates mere talent from creative genius? No one knows for sure. We do know, however, that many artistic advances and scientific discoveries come from men and women in their 20s—just old enough to have sufficient technical skills yet young enough to be unencumbered by the habits of older generations.
Psychological studies also indicate that highly creative people share an elevated risk of serious mental illness. For certain individuals, such ailments may actually contribute to their soaring achievements. Yet often the same condition eventually ruins their inventiveness and their life. Perhaps no story better exemplifies how mental illness can free up creativity, then crush it, than that of Brian Wilson.
By age 22 Wilson had already invented a new form of American folk music, achieving tremendous success with his group, the Beach Boys. From 1962 to 1965 the Beach Boys had 16 top-40 hits, including “Surfin' USA,” “Little Deuce Coupe” and “I Get Around.” Wilson, the group's primary writer, arranger and producer, then expanded his musical landscape with the Beach Boys' 1966 record Pet Sounds. The album altered the course of modern pop with its novel studio techniques, complex harmonic and rhythmic structures drawn from jazz and classical music, unusual instrumentation, and substantive themes of introspection and vulnerability. The legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein called Wilson one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, and Paul McCartney of the Beatles cited Pet Sounds as the major influence for the group's own inventive landmark album in 1967, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Unfortunately, the importance of Wilson's work was soon overshadowed in the popular consciousness by his steady and very public mental decline. In his early 20s, the typical age of onset for many psychotic disorders, social discomfort, depression and paranoia gave way to frank hallucinations and delusions. Over the following decade his condition progressed, and for a period of years he was unable to function consistently as a member of society, much less at his previous level as a hit-record producer.
Progressive mental illness such as that experienced by Wilson causes a breakdown in “executive function”—the ability of the brain's frontal lobes to plan, coordinate and execute, much the way a CEO would direct the operations of a business. Cognitive neuroscientists are still debating the definition of executive function and its influence on behavior. But Wilson's case provides powerful evidence of its sway. Thirty years after his decline, Wilson reemerged as a healthier individual and returned to making music. His incredible story shows how executive function can set creativity free, how its demise can subsequently cripple that creativity and the ability to negotiate daily life, and how proper treatment and support by psychiatrists and loved ones can create ways to compensate—in Wilson's case, allowing him to make a comeback.
“'Til I Die”
Neuroscientists maintain that the frontal lobes mediate a collection of high-level cognitive processes that enable us to control and direct lower-level processes. These executive functions allow us to transform a jumbled heap of puzzle pieces into a coherent picture. Think about preparing to go on a major trip. Your brain's CEO, working from the frontal lobes, sequences and prioritizes the many steps that must be performed, generating a plan to accomplish your goal and coming up with new tactics when circumstances change [see graphic below].
Because the frontal lobes interact with multiple brain systems, executive functions are highly sensitive to brain disease, psychiatric disorders and substance abuse. Despite their central role and vulnerabilities, however, executive functions are not as well understood or appreciated as other mental capacities, such as memory and perception, which are more easily assessed in the lab. And because demands for executive functions are greatest in unstructured, novel situations, patients with executive difficulties often appear normal when taking routine psychological and neurological tests. Executive dysfunction is therefore often not diagnosed, even in people who are seriously disabled by it.
The creative innovations heard on Pet Sounds coincided with the onset of Wilson's psychosis, which is characterized by a loosening of linkages between ideas. (This article is based on publicly available information, such as the authoritative books The Beach Boys, by David Leaf, and The Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys, and the Southern California Experience, by Timothy White; documentaries such as an episode of A&E's Biography series; media interviews with Wilson himself—notably Larry King Live in 2004—as well as other sources. I have not talked to Wilson, nor have I seen his medical records, but the many sources converge on a description that experts would recognize as psychosis.)
Mental illness does not make a person creative. But certain individuals who are endowed with artistic vision and particular technical skills can, at times, transform the loosening of linkages into inspired artistic associations. These novel associations can be difficult for the individual to harness, however, because a person with psychosis is betrayed by his own disordered perceptions. It is a frighteningly lonely disease, which Wilson perhaps knowingly portrayed in 1971 when he wrote “'Til I Die.” The song's lush music, reminiscent of the sea, stands in stark juxtaposition to the lyrics: “I'm a cork on the ocean / Floating over the raging sea.... I'm a leaf on a windy day / Pretty soon I'll be blown away....”
Wilson had reached a breaking point in late 1964 on a plane flight to Houston, when he suffered a nervous breakdown. He subsequently stopped touring with the Beach Boys so that he could focus his attention on writing and studio work for the band, avoiding the stress of the road. He used the Wrecking Crew for the instrumental recording sessions, the same studio musicians employed by his idol, Phil Spector, who defined the role of the modern record producer with hits by the Crystals and the Ronettes, such as “Da Doo Ron Ron.” Wilson's new work, appearing in 1965 on the next two albums, The Beach Boys Today! and Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!), introduced elements that later came together in fully realized form on the Pet Sounds album.
To create Pet Sounds, Wilson enlisted a new collaborator, Tony Asher, to assist with lyrics intended to depart from the previous themes of surfing, girls and cars. Wilson constructed songs at the piano, beginning with “feels,” or fragments of music representing a certain mood. By the time he entered the recording studio, he had a full arrangement in his mind that he then deconstructed by teaching musicians their parts one instrument at a time—from strings, horns and accordions to a water jug, bicycle bells and the theremin, the electronic gizmo responsible for spooky sounds in old horror movies and later made famous in the Beach Boys' song “Good Vibrations.” Indeed, Wilson often demonstrated the parts himself because he could play nearly all the instruments. Outtake recordings of Wilson working in the studio (which were included in the 1996 Pet Sounds Sessions box set) give an impression of a 23-year-old visionary leader directing the older and more experienced studio musicians to realize his artistic vision.
The last elements to be laid down on the album were the Beach Boys' vocals. No one but Wilson knew how the pieces would fit together until he assembled them at the final stage of production, when something spiritual emerged. As Timothy White, editor in chief of Billboard magazine throughout the 1990s, wrote in the liner notes to Pet Sounds Sessions, “What shines brightest behind, within and above the peal of Brian's exquisite material is the presence of the thing not named: an unswayable belief in the enduring power of one's better self.”
Recording multiple instrumental and vocal tracks and fitting them into a coherent whole relies on manipulating many streams of information held in short-term memory, a key executive function. Whereas other producers at the time recorded relatively simple songs in a single “take” performed by the entire group, Wilson held in his mind intricate symphonic arrangements and harmonies, recorded parts separately, then later put together the pieces of the puzzle. “Good Vibrations,” dubbed a “pocket symphony” by Wilson and released as a single just after Pet Sounds, was recorded in 17 sessions at various studios. The hit, which in music polls ranks as one of the greatest pop songs ever, represented the ultimate marriage of creativity with executive functions, prompting a key transition in popular music in which the studio itself was added to the impresario's quiver.
How was Wilson able to accomplish these monumental feats of vision and concentration while suffering from serious mental illness? Psychotic symptoms are not static; they wax and wane. Wilson's productivity was most likely greatest when his symptoms were in remission—when novel creative associations could be screened, manipulated and coherently integrated by his musical and executive powers.
Two Years in Bed
These powers were soon eclipsed by Wilson's progressive mental illness. The balance between inspiration and the cognitive capacity to realize that inspiration had shifted by 1967, as he and lyricist Van Dyke Parks were putting together Smile, an integrated set of album cuts centered on American culture and history.
A good indication of how Wilson's capabilities were slipping involves “output monitoring.” This executive function gives someone the ability to compare his actions with his intentions—to screen for errors and bad ideas. Wilson used unusual but successful sound ideas on Pet Sounds, such as bicycle bells to invoke themes of lost childhood, but his quest during Smile became bizarre—outfitting his musicians with fire hats during the recording of “Mrs. O'Leary's Cow” or infamously placing his piano in a sandbox. Yet because by this time he had been labeled as a “genius,” people around him often indulged his eccentricities rather than confronting them as symptoms of serious sickness. Evidence of faulty monitoring can also be heard in the original Pet Sounds recording, in which Wilson, usually the consummate perfectionist, allowed background chatter from the studio to creep into the final mix.
Once he had completed Smile's elements, Wilson seemed unable to fit them together. Parks eventually left the project, according to several accounts. Capitol Records was pressuring Wilson to produce something. But emotionally fragile and without support from his bandmates, he scrapped the Smile project in mid-1967.
Wilson's mental health steadily deteriorated, with occasional bouts of suicidal depression and psychosis. His drug habit, which could have been an attempt to self-treat his symptoms (common among patients with psychosis), expanded into heroin and especially cocaine use. He demonstrated intervals of creativity, but he never matched the breadth and complexity of his earlier work. He had two young children but was unable to assume a parental role and separated from his wife in 1978. By the early 1980s Wilson's weight had ballooned to more than 300 pounds, and he confined himself to his bed for two and a half years. Although there were periods of hospitalization and detox, treatment was not sustained. Wilson's public appearances were inconsistent at best.
Because of his tremendous notoriety, Wilson's mental troubles soon became part of the public consciousness. The media mocked him as some kind of nut. Viewed from the patient's perspective, however, staying in bed makes perfect sense when one is immersed in a warped reality.
As is often the case with patients who have executive dysfunction, Wilson's compromised state left him vulnerable to exploitation. His own psychologist, the late Eugene Landy, directed his life and career in the mid-1970s and then again from 1983 to 1991, according to several accounts and to Wilson's second wife, Melinda, during the Larry King interview. Although Landy was successful in isolating Wilson from illicit drugs and in helping him to lose weight, he also fostered a dependent relationship: he administered psychotropic drugs to Wilson, acted as his business adviser, and even attempted to collaborate with the artist on songwriting and singing. Wilson's family sued for conservatorship in 1990, and the issue was settled the following year. The court severed contact between Wilson and Landy, who had by then already surrendered his license to practice psychology in California to the state's Board of Medical Quality Assurance after conceding that he had unlawfully administered drugs to Wilson.
Throughout the 1990s Wilson received more conventional treatment, including medication and psychotherapy. He settled into a stable marriage. During the Larry King interview, Wilson and Melinda revealed that he had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of psychosis and abnormal mood. With support from his wife and musical colleagues, Wilson was reemerging in public, recording albums and performing as a solo artist, accompanied by musicians from the Los Angeles band the Wondermints and former Beach Boys guitarist Jeff Foskett.
Improved treatment of schizoaffective disorder has helped Wilson and many others. After more than 30 years he returned his attention to Smile, widely considered one of the greatest unreleased albums in contemporary music. Wilson appeared comfortable in the recording studio—executive dysfunction does not directly compromise memory or acquired musical skills. But it does affect the capacity to flexibly deploy them, particularly in an unstructured situation where there are no clear right or wrong answers, as in the creation of an album.
Wilson released Smile in 2004, at age 62, to worldwide acclaim. Its success is attributable to the quality of the original material and to the guidance and support of others who helped Wilson assemble the pieces—people who provide a prosthesis for Wilson's frontal lobes. According to White's book, Wilson had recognized this need as early as 1976, when in a recording session he had said, “Something happened to my concentration—I don't know exactly what, but it weakened for some reason—and I lost the ability to concentrate enough to follow through.” Wilson also began appearing live again, sitting in front of a keyboard, although he does not play much. His singing, though still serviceable, can be inconsistent. None of this really matters to his fans, however, who come for Wilson's legend and mystique.
Wilson reached a creative zenith in his early adulthood in spite of (and perhaps partly because of) his mental illness, which eventually robbed him of the cognitive abilities required to create art and nearly destroyed him. Wilson's comeback demonstrates that with proper treatment and support, individuals with mental illness can function at a high level in areas of their expertise, even if their symptoms persist.
During the painful interim, life took down other family members in the Beach Boys. Wilson's brother Dennis, the heart of the band, drowned in 1983, and brother Carl, the guitarist with the angelic voice, died of cancer in 1998. And whereas Pet Sounds was so perfectly poised in time, the political, cultural and musical milieu that spawned Smile almost immediately became a casualty of violence, war and lost innocence.
To paraphrase renowned psychologist and memory researcher Endel Tulving of the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, time's arrow runs straight, but memory endows us with the capacity to bend that arrow into a loop, to revise the past in our mind to regain, even if in fantasy, that which was lost. If Wilson's public resurrection bolsters this hope, then Smile in 2004, bending time's arrow back 37 years, codifies it. Perhaps, then, Smile fulfills a larger purpose beyond its lush and creative music: the need to believe that that which was lost can be regained.
The Brain's “CEO”
The role of executive function in human behavior is to coordinate the many brain activities needed to set goals, make plans to attain those goals, organize steps to carry out those plans, and ensure that the desired outcomes are achieved. This capacity can be likened to that of a company's chief executive officer. Psychologists are not in full agreement, but most acknowledge that multiple executive functions are mediated by the frontal lobes. The ones described below are engaged often.
Abstract thinking. Discerning relations among stimuli—seeing the forest for the trees—depends on abstract thinking. Imagine being asked to group into two sets of objects a pair of scissors, a water glass, an ax and a wheelbarrow. You might decide that the scissors and the water glass go together because they are used indoors, whereas the ax and wheelbarrow are used outdoors.
Attention shifting. Can you find another grouping? Scissors and axes cut; glasses and wheelbarrows contain. Many people with executive deficits find it hard to shift attention and inflexibly hold on to their original perceptions and behaviors, even when the usefulness of these associations has long expired.
Information manipulation. Nearly all higher-order cognitive operations require the real-time manipulation of information held in short-term memory. To prepare for a dinner party, a host has to juggle multiple timetables of when different foods will be cooked as well as consider the likes and dislikes of guests.
Planning and foresight. Preparing for a vacation requires foresight and analysis of the conditions and needs at the destination, which may be very different from the conditions and needs at home. A patient with executive dysfunction is often unable to escape the present to form a mental model of a future that is different.
Monitoring and error correction. These processes are engaged when results do not correspond with intentions. This effect could be seen, for example, in a woman who drives to a special bakery to buy a pie for a dinner party she is throwing that evening and finds it is closed. She might go to another bakery on the other side of town without considering that the trip would not allow her to get back home until long after the guests had arrived.
Decision making. Consider a man who is having trouble making ends meet. He could cut expenses or increase income, either path requiring him to weigh options, arrive at a decision and see it through. Patients with executive difficulties cannot settle on a choice, particularly in situations where the correct response is not obvious or previously learned. They may blindly follow other people's suggestions, which is why they can be easily exploited.
Inhibition. Automatic responses can be unhelpful or even harmful. Imagine you have just won a major award; your reaction would be to tell everyone your news. But waiting until other finalists are properly informed of their loss requires inhibition.
Social functioning. Failure to appropriately process or output social cues can have devastating consequences. The main concern of one frontal lobe dementia patient, on seeing that his wife was cut and bleeding badly from an accident involving a power tool, was that the tool be cleaned as soon as possible. —B.L.