Drugs, mental disorder, and Brian Wilson’s genius

The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson may be one of the most legendary songwriters of our time, but his mind was troubled. Here's how drugs and schizoaffective disorder fueled the musical genius' creativity.

Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys is arguably one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century. His eclectic compositions moved the masses, but his life and career were not without challenges. The interplay between Wilson’s schizoaffective disorder and creative brilliance is played out in Bill Pohlad's recent biopic, Love and Mercy, and analyzed in Stefano’s Belli’s psychobiographical analysis.

Belli’s article, “A psychobiographical analysis of Brian Douglas Wilson: Creativity, drugs, and models of schizophrenic and affective disorders” was a top trending article on ResearchGate and has been downloaded over 10,000 times. Fascinated by his work (and Brian Wilson) ourselves, we asked Belli a few questions…

ResearchGate: Brian Wilson suffers from schizoaffective disorder – can you please explain its symptoms and potential effect on his musical creativity?

Belli (1)
Stefano Belli

Stefano Belli: Put very simply, schizoaffective disorder is a diagnosis that shows features of both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. So that is a combination of cycling moods, elements of mania and depression, as well as psychotic symptoms like delusions or hallucinations. It also potentially involves negative symptoms like anhedonia or flattened affect.

I think there are very interesting lines to be drawn between psychological aspects of certain features of schizoaffective disorder and certain kind of creative thought. One aspect of Brian Wilson’s astonishing musical creativity was the way he used and combined sounds and instruments that would never have been placed together and certainly would not have been be used in pop music. The classic example is the way he used the theremin, but I think his arrangements of woodwinds and tuned and untuned percussion for pop music were just as novel and even more impressive.

RG: So this unconventional mix of sounds and instruments link together his illness and creativity?

SB: Yes - In the paper I talk about how these kinds of unconventional analogies, like using percussion to symbolise jewellery or different wind speeds or combinations of ideas, could represent a concept called “overinclusion.” This is where you apply extraneous or seemingly irrelevant information to novel situations where it might be very unconventional, in order to solve a problem. This has strong relationships both to the kinds of creativity that Brian Wilson has used, but also to things like very low-level perceptual aberrations in psychosis, or ‘flight of ideas’ in hypomanic or manic experiences.

RG: Wilson took a lot of drugs throughout his career - cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines and sporadic use of LSD to name a few. Can you discuss how this may have influenced his creative processes?

SB: Brian Wilson has talked a lot in the past about how conscious reflection on some of his drug experiences directly influenced his music. The example that I’m always most fascinated by is that of just repeating the same musical phrase again and again. He first did that with the riff from California Girls after trying LSD.

When you listen to SMiLE as an album you’ll hear it changes musical ideas very quickly. However, the way Brian wrote was to have each of these swiftly-appearing musical ideas played and recorded as a huge number of repetitions, which he would later stitch together in the studio and finally finish some 50 years later. But if you listen to how each of the individual ideas was initially written or recorded, they’re just these huge expansive repetitions.


RG: You also include a short analysis of Wilson’s extended family. Did you find any connection between his mental disorder and his family members?

SB: I think it’s fair to say that the Wilson family was a fairly stressful environment growing up. The more life stressors you experience the greater risk you have of developing some form of mental disorder, particularly if there’s any genetic predisposition. There was certainly well-documented substance abuse in Brian’s brothers Carl and Dennis. Substance abuse is strongly comorbid with a lot of mental disorders and is often used as a way of self-medicating for symptoms of mental disorder – but without clinical diagnoses in these first degree relatives of Brian, I didn’t want to speculate too much based just on biographical information. Also, life as a touring musician can be extremely stressful and can increase access to a lot of the kind of substance and alcohol abuse behaviours that make symptoms or elements of mental disorder a lot worse.

RG: A lot of controversy surrounds Dr Eugene Landy’s medical treatment of Wilson. How do you incorporate this in your analysis?

SB: In terms of medical treatment, the paper talks about the fact that while under Eugene Landy’s care, Brian Wilson was overmedicated with phenothiazines (a type of anti-psychotic drug) to such an extent that he developed tardive dyskinesia. This is a difficult-to-treat disorder related to slow and repetitive involuntary movements. Landy’s diagnosis of Brian Wilson (paranoid schizophrenia) was off the mark and a lot of the other stuff he did – things like isolating Brian from his family and his economic independence – obviously have no basis in clinical treatment and quite frankly just look like a pattern of systematic abuse. One of the big difficulties in writing the psychobiography was trying to work out if certain sources of information were viable, or just based on outright lies that Landy had used the media to propagate.

RG: What enticed you to write a psychobiographical analysis about Brian Wilson?

SB: I was (and very much still am) a pretty huge Beach Boys fan and knew that Brian Wilson was open about his diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. I thought it would be a great opportunity to research both creativity and mental illness in someone who I have an enormous amount of admiration for.

RG: What research are you working on now, and are you interested in writing another psychobiographical analysis? (if so, on whom?)

SB: I think the psychobiography will probably end up being a one-off for me, but it was a really great experience in terms of doing a different kind of research and listening to A LOT of the Beach Boys “for work reasons.” Currently I’m just finishing up working as part of a project called ROAMER, which is a multidisciplinary report that has generated a set of priorities for European mental health research over the next 5-10 years. I’m also about to move to the University of Lincoln where I’m hoping to get some research up and running that looks at how cognitive biases might play a role in negative emotional effects of self-stereotyping in marginalised or minority groups.

RG: Thank you, Stefano.

Image courtesy of: "Brian Wilson 1976" by Brother Records. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons