Bipolar Disorder and the Creative Mind

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 202

2006 Second Web Paper

On Serendip

Bipolar Disorder and the Creative Mind

Liz Paterek

There is an old stereotype that artists are moody individuals prone to fits of depression and madness. Is this little more than an old wives tale? Many artists and writers speak of periods of increased mental fluidity and lifted mood ((4)). Poets such as Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson, novelists such as Mary Shelley and Leo Tolstoy and artists such as Michelangelo and Vincent Van Gogh have all be reported to show signs mental instability ((2)). How common is depression in artists compared to other creative professions? If there is a trend, is it because this bipolar nature generates a new way to see the world? Are the arts a refuge for mentally unstable? Is artistic genius linked with madness?

Major depression strikes as many as 5% of the general population, often later in life and is more common in women. Bipolar affective disorder, which involves phases of mania and depression, is known to strike 1% of the population, with the numbers of men and women being similar ((1b)). Mania is expressed by periods of extreme productivity, grandiosity, hyperactivity and irritability lasting for at least a week. Hypomania is a less severe form of this disorder also involved in manic depression. Major depression must last for periods of at least 4 weeks and is characterized by inability to concentrate, feelings of worthlessness and fatigue ((5), (3)).

Memory and creativity are related to mania. Clinical studies have shown that those in a manic state will rhyme, find synonyms and use alliteration more than controls. This mental fluidity could contribute to an increase in creativity. Moreover mania creates increases in productivity and energy. Those in a manic state are more emotionally sensitive and show less inhibition about attitudes, which could create greater expression ((3)). Studies performed at Harvard looked into the amount of original thinking in solving creative tasks. Bipolar individuals, whose disorder was not severe, tended to show greater degrees of creativity ((5)).

Bipolar disorder is not the first to be linked to creativity. During the 1960's, it was alcoholism. Before that, many artists, including Keats, Shelley, and Poe were thought to have fatal diseases such as tuberculosis. However, these diseases all are linked by symptoms. Tuberculosis has manic and depressive phases, which gives credence to the idea that artists experience mood swings ((2)). Alcoholism is linked to mania and depression ((3)).

There have been studies pointing to a link between manic-depression and left-brained talents. When Nancy C. Andreasen of the University of Iowa questioned 30 writers, she found that at least 80% had had at least one episode of major depression, mania or hypomania compared to 30% of controls ((2), (5)). Another researcher, Rothenburg, who has spent 30 years studying creative individuals, objects to her control groups and her methods ((2)). Later when Kay Redfield Jamison studied 47 writers, painters, and sculptors, she found that 30% had been treated for bipolar disorder ((2), (5)). Half of the poets studied were treated for bipolar disorder ((5)).

While these samples are small and it is difficult to judge prominence of many living individuals, there is a trend. Some diagnosis of the past has been performed to help confirm this data. This is based on second hand information and has its flaws ((2)). The way individuals are portrayed by others will be scattered, because they do not know all aspects of a person's life. All people have quirks, if one wanted to see insanity, it would be easy to exaggerate them. However, if this data is supportive, it will cement the trend.

Artists in generations past have been shown to have suicide rates 10-20 times higher than the general population and higher than average rates of hospitalization for depression ((1b)). Another researcher, Ludwig, delved into depression in prominent 20th century individuals based on 2,200 biographies of 1,004 individuals. He showed that while 11% of creative individuals suffered from mania; only 1% of the general population did. He also showed 46 to 77% suffered from depression, almost twice the rate in the general population ((1c)). He found that accomplished individuals in other fields, including science, had only a 3% rate of depression. He believed the biographers were less likely than psychiatrists to believe that a person had a mental disorder and that clinical stories are autobiographies which are the most inaccurate understanding of a person ((2)). Despite any flaws in how these experiments have been performed, the trend persists. Therefore it is important to ask why this trend exists.

While Jamison and Andreasen argued that bipolar disorder enhances creativity, Ludwig argued that individuals who are creative but manic are more likely to find a home in art rather than other fields ((2)). According the Ludwig, the sciences require organization, preparedness and levelheadedness. An artist could draw on the lack of these traits for inspiration; a scientist could not ((2)).
There is the question of different forms of intelligence. A scientist may not be an outstanding poet nor is an outstanding poet likely to be great at physics. At an elite level, talents are often focused in specific field. This is at least somewhat suggestive that there may be different brain connections that create different talents. Therefore a genius may not be able to choose to go between fields because of personality as Ludwig suggests.

The Jamison and Andreasen argument is shaken by the fact that around half of all great creative minds have not been bipolar; therefore manic phases could not cause their creativity. They have no data to suggest directionality of this link. It could just as likely be that artistic talents generate a predisposition for bipolar symptoms as it could be that being bipolar generates artistic abilities. The latter makes less sense because fewer bipolar individuals are artistic than artists are bipolar, as well as that those with severe mania are less creative than those with mild forms. While drug studies would seem to support the link that without manic phases creativity decreases, it would be better to realize that these drugs have broad effects and all effects may not be directly related ((2), (5)).

It is clear that being bipolar does not mean that one will necessarily be creative. It is also clear that being bipolar is not a requisite for genius. However, Hagop S. Akiskal found that 9-10 percent of those bipolar patients he studied with less severe symptoms were artists and writers ((1a)). The mind of a left-brained genius could be more vulnerable to mood swings, which manifest similarly to normal bipolar symptoms. Therefore the symptoms would not exist in all geniuses but in many. The connections in the brain that cause this genius may be different from those who express right brained talents. This would explain why geniuses in other fields do not show the same symptoms. It would also keep the link between mania and creativity that Ludwig's argument does not.

Left brained creativity could be a vulnerability factor to developing symptoms of bipolar disorder. Studies present a seemingly clear link between bipolar disorder and artistic creativity. This would account for the reason other individuals in creative fields, such as science, do not show the same results. Because talent is often focused, it is unlikely that a manic individual chooses art. Because not all bipolar minds are creative but many creative minds are bipolar, it seems likely that bipolar disorder generates vulnerability for bipolar symptoms. Because it is only a vulnerability factor, many people will not suffer from it while still having talent.

Works Cited:
1a) Creativity and the Troubled Mind

1b) Manic-Depressive Illness and Creativity

1c) Moods and the muse

2) That fine madness - manic depression is latest mental illness popularly linked to artistic genius - special issue: The Science of Creativity

3) Analysis of Relationship Between Manic Depression and Creativity

4) The link Between Mental Illness and Creativity

5) Bipolar Disorder and the Creative Genius


| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Friday, 21-Apr-2006 10:00:53 EDT