A Book Commentary on Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness And The Artistic Temperament

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Biology 202
2006 Book Commentaries
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A Book Commentary on Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness And The Artistic Temperament

Anna Dejdar


I read the book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness And The Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison where she discusses Manic-Depressive Illness and its possible connection to the great achievements of many famous poets, writers, artists, and musicians. The book is very interesting because it not only provides an explanation and full description of the many aspects of manic-depressive illness, which is also called Bipolar Disorder, but it also gives accounts of the actual thoughts and behaviors of the people with manic-depressive illness and also the people who knew them. By having the various portrayals, it allowed me as the reader to get into their heads and to understand more fully the feelings that they were experiencing as a result of the illness. It was a more complete picture because it was not just a simple description of the criteria necessary for diagnosing manic-depressive illness, but it went beyond that. Furthermore, it was also clearly shown how the illness not only impacts the people who have it, but also the people in their lives because this was also demonstrated through the thoughts and eyes of someone not suffering from it, but someone who can see the changing behavior and thoughts of the person with the illness, which conveyed the effects of manic-depressive illness strongly. The descriptions were extremely important in the book and they made it more complete.

Another part that I enjoyed reading was when the author described the course of the illness and also the genetic history of several people with manic-depressive illness like Vincent Van Gogh, Lord Byron, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and many others. It was appealing to read because the author provided a lot of evidence, both scientific findings from studies and also family history of people, whose symptoms seem to be characteristic of manic-depressive illness, supporting the strong issue of heritability in manic-depressive illness. As I stated earlier, these actual descriptions of the family members of the people and how they were described by others in terms of their behavior and feelings continued to provide a clearer picture about the real impacts of the illness on the entire family, where the people that go on to develop manic-depressive illness have a contribution both from their genes and also from their family environment. This interaction of the two could have serious effects.

Lastly, it was interesting to see how the author provided information about future treatment or developments in technology for manic-depressive illness and the implications that could go along with them, both ethical and scientific. She explored how early testing during pregnancy for manic-depressive illness, gene therapy, and even sterilization could seriously affect the future of everyone because she also discussed many examples of famous artists who have suffered from manic-depressive illness, illustrating a possible link. Through their examples, the author also discussed the positive and negative consequences from having the illness. She also stated the argument that there are many artists who do not have the illness, leaving the discussion still open for a definite link between manic-depressive illness and artists. As a result of the potential connection with artists, the author left many questions about how the possible future altering of genes may have an impact on other genes that might be connected to the artistic creativity, which would result in effects on future artists or if this technology had been available it could have seriously changed the lives of the previous great artists who had manic-depressive illness and then the world would have been different without their creative input into it. The altering of the genes could possibly reduce the symptoms of manic-depressive illness, but along with those symptoms, there could also be a loss of the creative and energetic spirit that might have inspired the creation of the art. This is an interesting and serious consideration to take into account and it was very well explored by the author where she gave a lot of information on the subject both with positive and negative aspects. Throughout the entire book, the author presents a very balanced view and provides a very clear and thorough representation of the many dimensions of manic-depressive illness, making it very understandable.

The book was also great to read because it had many perspectives that were similar to the way that our class, Neurobiology and Behavior was taught and therefore, for me it continued the approach to studying the neurobiology and the behavior of individuals that was introduced in the class. For example, the author provided a clear explanation of everything thoroughly so that it would be understood by everyone, making it greatly enjoyable and also very instructional. As a result I learned a great deal from reading it. This is similar to the presentation of material and subjects in the class, where the professor also explained everything very clearly and in terms that would be understandable to everyone. Furthermore, the professor gave examples to illustrate the points more clearly, which continued to be helpful in learning about the various functions of the brain and the connections to behavior. For example, in learning about the "I-Function"( (2)), which was a completely new concept for me, the professor provided actual examples from life in helping to both explain what the "I-Function" ( (2)) is and also how and when it can work. This was incredibly helpful and also interesting, which is a similar approach to the way that the author Kay Redfield Jamison writes her book where she also gives many examples, which also help to make the book more understandable and also more enjoyable.

Another similar approach is that the author explored the various aspects of manic-depressive illness, looking at it from multiple arguments and also viewpoints, which gave a fuller picture to the illness and presented different ways of looking at it, which showed the reader the various reasons for the theories, allowing the reader to have a better understanding. This also reminded me of the approach in our class, where for example with the organization of the nervous system, we went through the different thoughts about the organization, starting at the "Spaghetti Bowl" ( (2)) model and then ending at a more complex model with an "I-Function" ( (2)) and also the option of "signals starting in the middle of the box" ((2)). In a similar result to the approach of the book, this way allowed everyone to see the reasoning and the process to getting to the present model, but it also allowed everyone to be able to look at different explanations because it has not been found for certain that any model is correct, the other models are "less wrong" ((2)). Both the book and this course taught me a great deal about different approaches to different aspects of neurobiology and behavior.

References:
1) Jamison, Redfield, Kay. Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness And The Artistic Temperament. New York: FREE PRESS PAPERBACK, Simon & Schuster, 1994.

2) Grobstein, Paul. Neurobiology and Behavior. 2006.

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