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Bipolar disorder and creativity are linked (but not by some mad genius)

Does some fine madness yield great artists, writers, and scientists? The evidence is growing for a significant link between bipolar disorder and creative temperament and achievement. People with bipolar…

A high number of artists and writers meet the diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder. Eddi van W.

Does some fine madness yield great artists, writers, and scientists? The evidence is growing for a significant link between bipolar disorder and creative temperament and achievement.

People with bipolar disorder swing repeatedly from depression to euphoria and hyperactivity, or intensely irritable mood states. Sometimes likened to being on an emotional rollercoaster, each swing up then down affects one’s behaviour, energy levels, thought patterns and sleep.

Also known as manic-depressive illness, bipolar disorder is strongly genetically linked, passing down through each generation of an affected family. It is fairly common and very treatable with modern medicines and psychotherapy.

A seminal work in the field is Kay Redfield Jamison’s 1993 book Touched with Fire: Manic-depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. The American psychologist combined current diagnostic criteria with biographical data, diaries, family trees and other historical information, to closely examine the lives of a sample of major 18th century British poets born between the years 1705 and 1805.

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Jamison found a rate of bipolar disorder 30 times greater in these poets than is present in the general population. Jamison’s work also found that the periods psychiatrists call hypomania – mild but not full-blown mania – can also involve heightened creative thinking and expansiveness, high mental speed, cognitive flexibility, and ability to make original connections between otherwise disparate ideas, all elements underlying creativity.

Other studies by Jamison – as published here and here – established that a number of speech components occur in individuals when hypomanic: they are more likely to use alliteration, to rhyme, to use idiosyncratic words, and engage in a playful use of language.

When given drills, they can list synonyms or form word associations more rapidly than control groups. And so they rate highly on tests of creativity. Jamison’s 1989 study of 47 eminent British writers and artists – selected on the basis of their having won at least one of several major prestigious prizes or awards in their fields – found 38% of this group had been treated for a mood disorder, a category that includes depression as well as bipolar disorder.

Playing by numbers

Recent, large-scale studies provide additional scientific support to Jamison’s work. A whole-population cohort study of all individuals in the Swedish national school register showed that those who demonstrated excellent school performances were nearly four times as likely to develop bipolar disorder as those who exhibited only average performance.

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Excellence in language or music was particularly correlated with an increased risk for developing bipolar disorder. Other recent large-scale studies have addressed a different pattern of association – one between creative occupation and mental illness.

These studies found a clear over-representation of people with bipolar disorder (and their healthy siblings) in the most creative occupational categories, which included artists, musicians, writers and scientists.

Hypomanic moods

While large, population-based studies provide us with the scientific rigour to test the link between bipolar disorder and creativity, some of the more interesting studies have involved smaller-scale, reflexive approaches.

Here, writers and artists with personal experience of bipolar disorder have reflected on their own and their peers’ creative processes, exploring how their mood states interact with their productivity.

In 2010, Stephanie Stone Horton reflexively traced her own and her colleagues’ writing creativity and dysfunction as early career writers with bipolar disorder or depression.

Horton described how hypomanic moods often facilitate writing periods characterised by fluency, flair and persuasive power, whereas the periods of mild depression or euthymia (even moods between the extremes) may be better used for the editing and proofing.

Olivia Sagan explored the experiences of mentally ill, developing artists through longitudinal biographical interviews conducted with art students at two university sites.

Narratives involved complex stories in which participants considered their illness to be part of themselves, albeit one that they needed to “manage”.

One of the details of the narratives was the hypervigilance of health and ill-health on a continuum which at times threatened to jeopardise the dearly won achievement of becoming an art student. Here, participants often talked about the potentially productive, but also potentially destabalising, role of hypomanic moods.

Drop the “mad genius” tag

Let’s be clear. To argue for a link between bipolar disorder and creative achievement is not to argue that all, or even most, artists and writers automatically have a mental illness: indeed, most do not. To make such simplistic generalisations can reinforce the idea of the “mad genius” and trivialise a serious medical condition that can end in suicide.

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Yet the evidence to date suggests that a high number of artists and writers, far more than could be expected by chance, meet the diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder.

What are the implications for treatment? First line medication for bipolar disorder, lithium, can cause cognitive dulling and slowing, and limit emotional and perceptual range for some individuals. This is especially significant for those working in creative fields such as artists and writers, who draw on their emotions for creating their work.

It is not surprising then that some artists and writers with bipolar disorder choose not to take medications. But unless an individual has a mild expression of bipolar disorder, the consequences of the condition (suicide, for example) nearly always argue for active treatment.

More research is need to understand not only how mood experiences interact with creative processes and artistic production, but to learn how mood episodes shape decisions about whether or not to accept treatment and if so, the treatment choices.

We also need to learn more about how people with bipolar disorder can best be supported to make the most of their lives, with the highest degree of satisfaction in their achievements.

Society benefits from the achievements of its talented writers, artists, and scientists with mental illness, yet those affected don’t always judge their moments of brilliance to be worth the accompanying pain and distress, and don’t always place their personal wellbeing and adherence to taking medication ahead of the potential to express their creativity.

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29 Comments sorted by

  1. Chris Harries

    logged in via Facebook

    "I don't have an affliction, I have an asset!"

    So complained my charismatic brother, whose life was dogged by this psychology but who appreciated the reckless energy that it gave him, and also his tremendous fighting spirit. That churning creative energy also dogged him to the end.

    Knowing Joe has given me insight to others who have been afflicted by this 'disorder', both present and past.

    Of the latter, I've followed with interest the life of 16th Century musician John Downland, the flaming…

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  2. Dylen Durret

    logged in via Twitter

    Life's rough, get a helmet.

    Being bipolar allows me to really enjoy my happiness, while I have developed ways to make my depression work for me, not against me. When I'm really depressed, I go to the gym, clean, or do something else productive. Sure, it sucks to be in the mind-state that you suck and you're a horrible person, but you get over it.

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    1. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Dylen Durret

      Dylen Durret

      Yes, I use to do that - the exercise. Now, in addition to bi-polar I have chronic fatigue which carries a label of "exercise with extreme caution".

      Do you have a supportive family? Helps if they understand.

      Same for friends - in fact because we can choose our friends I tend to value them very highly indeed - they don't have to like me out of a sense of obligation.

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    2. Carol-Anne Croker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dylen Durret

      What worries me so much Dylen is that so many people cannot nor do they 'simply get over it' and life is tough sure but does it have to be debillitating to the point of despair? You seem to me lucky in your experience of bipolar. Many are not, and I have shared hospital wards with them over the years. One size in this instance does not fit all.

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  3. Kate Rowan-Robinson

    Registered Nurse/Sexology Student

    When working in mental health services I always marvelled at the sheer creativity of so many patients. One of the reasons why I could never be a mental health nurse is that I really enjoyed the whimsical conversations and ideas many people had, so much so that I would forget that I was counselling and just settle into an entertaining conversation. Not very good.

    I have always tried to remember some of the wonderful lines and words that would come, the paintings and drawings and ideas were often tremendous. I love the idea above that it's not an affliction, but an asset. While I feel for sufferers and the difficulties they face in their day to day lives, I also really appreciate (and am envious of!) the wonderful creative talents that they can issue.

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    1. Stephen Van Der Kleij

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Kate Rowan-Robinson

      Kate I am moved to reply as I read how you always (In All Ways..??) try and remember the wonderful lines and words that made more sense or Felt more right than the communication style and level, that you were getting from your Co workers.......Perhaps?
      And that mysteriously you felt drawn/reminded of a freer mode of thought or belief creation....and somehow your Heart felt charmed,...when it hardly did when interracting with the supposed healthy ones and the system that employed them so.
      To much contradiction...and to much of having to ignore your Hearts whisperings and shouts,.....for merely a "Health Systems" pay.
      Oh I am moved,Here is another Sister seeing through the strange factors of the society and social setup she is in......Precious!

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    2. Kate Rowan-Robinson

      Registered Nurse/Sexology Student

      In reply to Stephen Van Der Kleij

      Stephen, thank you so much for your kind words, but you really do flatter me too much. I just genuinely enjoy people, their stories and am curious as to how they came to be where they are. I especially enjoy creativity in people; I desperately wish to be creative myself, but I found myself with a talent for healthcare, rather than the arts. But at least I am in a position to come across some truly individual expressions and ideas in my role, it's one of those things that make it worthwhile being in healthcare.

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  4. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    Excellent piece.

    I remember having long conversations with a mate who had a running relationship with bipolar disorder which was now being smothered in a tsunami of lithium every morning. He spoke of his manic episodes in a dreamy far-away euphoria or nostalgia... not unlike recovering addicts recall their addictions actually.

    The lithium made him predictable, made him possible to live with, made him stable ... and made him so so sad. It took away his music and his poetry. Robbed him of heart. Left him half dead. More about us than him I suspect. The chemical straightjacket.

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    1. Carol-Anne Croker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Ah the skills to get the chemical straightjacket just right... it takes a very special relationship with your psychiatrist and an ability to know how far you personally can tilt in either direction. It is so easy to say that we have 'lost' something when we are medicated, but perhaps we just might be having our life saved instead. A hard compromise for many BD patrients to decide: to medicate or not. Each has their own response and attitude to this... again one size does not fix all, but at least lithium is based on a naturally occuring mineral compound, unlike some others.

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    2. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Carol-Anne Croker

      Oh no Ms C don't mistake me - the bloke I was thinking of when I began traipsing all over this sad turf of BPD - is infinitely better off without his uncontrolled outbursts. His family is better off. They are still with him. He is still alive.

      But that is not to say he is happy. He is at best content. And he still misses the self-destructive surges of his mania. In his case the adrenaline of risk.

      And even better would be some more targeted drugs. And the increasingly widespread notion…

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    3. Carol-Anne Croker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      re-readig this discussion as I grapple with a research grant proposal for research into lived experiences whilst simultaneously trying to finish my PhD creative artefact on BD. now is the time I need my mania and creativity but I live in fear my colleagues who witness the inevitable post-mania crash would just affirm their beliefs that I am too in stable for secure professional employment ( as is currently the case). I will continue to live marginalised but gathering around me a solid educated group of informed citizens and advocates. when I am free of the PhD I will be free to be a public advocat and develop a network of activists around us patients and scholars.

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  5. Comment removed by moderator.

  6. Carol-Anne Croker

    logged in via Facebook

    Great summary of the academic debate around the connection between "madness and creativy'. I have an essay accepted for the forthcoming Collected Edition for the Journal of affective Disorders. This cololection is looking more broadly at BD than simply the academic discourse and includes auto-ethnographic spaces for personal stories of living/writing and perhaps even studying with Affective Disorders. Mine in on BD. It should be available online via Elsevier late this year. I will post a link when…

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    1. Carol-Anne Croker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Carol-Anne Croker

      Collection not picked up by the academic editors...too many disparate strands unable to be woven together by an experienced editor. The work continues and I will get 'our essay collection out there...soon.

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  7. Claudia Slegers

    Research Fellow- Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights at Monash University

    [I hope this message goes to all who posted on this topic, I am not quite sure what I am doing tech wise!!]
    Thank you to everyone for sharing your comments and insights about bipolar disorder and creativity, including personal and very moving stories of your own and loved ones' experiences.
    I feel privileged to read and write about this topic. My own family has been strongly affected by bipolar disorder, in each generation. It is a mixed blessing. I applaud Carol-Anne and others' work reflecting…

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  8. Claudia Slegers

    Research Fellow- Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights at Monash University

    One more thing. Chris I went to respond to your email but it looks as though the Monash email system has been down for over an hour now. (I am working from home today). So I will try and reply to you as soon as it is working again.
    Best regards, Claudia

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  9. Jonathan Powles

    Associate Professor and Director, Teaching and Learning Centre at University of Canberra

    Very good article, Claudia.

    One thing I'd like to see expanded further is the very grey area and fuzzy border between "having" bipolar disorder and not. As with most mental illnesses, people sit somewhere on a spectrum and the diagnosis as to which side of the line any one individual sits has more to to with diagnostic definitions than anything else. This is particularly the case for bipolar disorder, to the extent that the label "cyclothymia" was coined to describe those with milder bipolar symptoms.

    Jameson's work particularly identifies creative success among those with symptoms of cyclothymia, and also healthy siblings of those with severe bipolar disorder. As you point out, serious bipolar disorder is a debilitating, dangeros and crippling condition and the alluring "creative madness" stereotype is quite problematic.

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    1. Carol-Anne Croker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jonathan Powles

      Thank you Jonathon for a considered response to this topic. It so often becomes inflamatory under the guise of medication/non medication, societal normalcy and control versus personal freedom. Like the disorder itself the discussions are often far too polarised.

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  10. john mills

    artist

    Having Bi-polar or not, and deciding that, may be a grey area or a fuzzy border, but what it is firstly, before its anything is the subjective"imagination of a psychiatrist". A sheltered academic,an alien from a middle class family, making a derogatory, imaginative statement, about a lower class, under educated, drug taking/effected young person, that they feel alien to and threatened by, (for the most), and in the most troublesome time of their life, between the age of fifteen to 25, The who am…

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    1. Carol-Anne Croker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to john mills

      I hear your anger at misdiagnosis and hasty retreat to medications. You raise some very interesting experiences here, but it just demonstrates that there is far more information and research to be done before we know enough about all forms of medication (self or prescribed) and the individual involved. Please just don't shoot the messenger. My psychiatrist (a good couple out of several) have saved my life. They got it right and were insightful and knwledgeable and worked in partnership with me, the patient. There was no sense of the paternalistic attitude you speak of. Stay creative John and be pleased you have been able to avoid labelling. I hope your art is your wellness medicine. I envy you that.

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    2. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Carol-Anne Croker

      Carol-Anne

      I am changing medication ATM. I went for 10 weeks without medication recently because I had been on the same type for over 15 years and I wanted to see what or who I am without meds.

      I couldn't cope - no need to bore you with how I felt. But I tried to reach out to my sister - she's far too busy for the likes of me. But my friends are there, so am holding together because of them.

      Have started a new type of medication, only been on them 10 days so too early to tell, at least I don't run around hyperactive, but am, having difficulty controlling my thoughts, spiralling but hoping this medication will help to even this internal storm.

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    3. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to john mills

      A very emotional statement, and evocative John :)
      On the view of the defenselessness of a young one in the arms of the 'state', civilized or not. Yeah, the state sometimes reminds me of a book of Asimov, regulated, organized, wanting to impose its weak distilled view of how humanity 'should behave', and doing it on those without a support net and without a voice that can be heard.

      But then you have the other side of the coin too. People that do care, and want to make the best for that person. Sometimes regulations and that vision collides but they exist too.

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    4. Carol-Anne Croker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Please Diana feel free to FB message mevas I am hoping that in the coming two years I will be involved in a fantastic research program using creative performance as research. Friends often enjoy the manc usm feel obligated to be there for our downs but then over time it seems to be too wearing or repetitive. I have found a mood chart or cyclothmia directory of immense assistance to gain perspective on my ability of mood states. There is a scale in the website of the cyclothymia collective which often drops into z lack of activity but is still out there. The changing medication journey is tough. I love the real me...but the world does not. I even hate myself when the world hates me. But I have survived. 24 since diagnosis and medcation. I can study, write and be an advocate. we all have immense things to offer...hence my revisiting this old conversation, to clarify some thouughts. I pray you are in a state of wellness.

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    5. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Carol-Anne Croker

      Thanks Carol-Anne

      The last few months have been a wild ride. I ended up back on my old prescription at a higher dose - the new medication didn't work very well at all.

      What I have learned from all this is simply I do need antidepressant medication, I wish I didn't but I know these meds stabilise to a level where I can function reasonably well.

      Now what I need is a cure for ME.

      Hoping you are stable and content.

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  11. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    The article misses the point utterly.

    Everyone has mood oscillations. Creative people have wider mood swings than staid people.

    In adverse circumstances, the amplitude of the swings can become dangerous or disabling.

    Appropriate treatment is to dampen the oscillations enough to allow behaviour that is "normal" for the person (not calibrated against population averages of mostly staid people).

    Empathy can work better than drugs in achieving this.

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    1. Carol-Anne Croker

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Harland

      The whole notion of Creative people having wider mood swings is contentious. We do appear over-represented in this category but there could be many explanations for this, including a freedom from societal contsraints which allows us to proclaim our disorder, when other professionals can't risk it, economically. Migt I suggest reading The Dark Side of Creativity by Cropley et al (2010) for a more indepth look at this very issue. There is currently research being carried out globally about the prevalence of Affective Disorders across the community and not just amongst the creatives.

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    2. John Harland

      bicycle technician

      In reply to Carol-Anne Croker

      I contest what I see as excessive use of the concept of mental "illness".

      It can be helpful to see them in the light of the botanist's definition of a weed. A weed is a plant out of place. It is appropriate in its context, but not in our garden.

      The behaviours we characterise as mental illness are generally extremes of otherwise useful traits, or they are otherwise-useful traits in the wrong context. Was it that several of my colleagues went mad when The Kennett government made their changes to schools, or was the behaviour of my colleagues a sane reaction to circumstances that had gone mad?

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  12. Yoron Hamber

    Thinking

    Don't know.
    Maybe it's a oversimplification to say that some sorts of creative insanity and genius share a thin border, and maybe it's true at times? I just don't know. We all have our own views, privately at least, even though we tend to go with the 'herd' publicly. What I do know is that some having those sort of mano-depressive disorders do miss them, not saying that all do so though. It's also about your 'persona', who you think you 'are'. People use all kinds of stuff for getting a 'release', and this discussion reminds me of the other side of the coin, being there but wanting to 'come down'.

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