Manic Depression and Creativity – A Book Review

Paul B's picture
Manic Depression and Creativity – A Book Review

Paul Bloch

Manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder, is a mental disorder, which is characterized by a cyclic shift in moods between mania and depression. Manic symptoms include hyperactivity, inflated self-esteem, high risk activity, decrease need for sleep, distractibility, and flight of ideas (a rapid, uncontrolled flow of thoughts). Depression is characterized by dysphoria, loss of interest or pleasure in usual pastimes, decreased energy, decrease appetite, and suicidal thoughts (1). It is hard to imagine how one would be able to function regularly with such debilitating symptoms.

Hence, I was surprised when I discovered that my favorite president, Abraham Lincoln, suffered from manic depression. I was equally as surprised to learn that my favorite guitarist, Jimi Hendrix, also suffered from manic depression. To my astonishment, many accomplished men and women throughout history had suffered from some form of bipolar disorder. This has caused many to wonder whether there is an association between bipolar disorder and creativity or whether it is a coincidence that so many geniuses had suffered from the mental disorder. Hershman and Lieb seek to answer this question in their book “Manic Depression and Creativity,” and they do a great job. They explain how both sides of manic depression (mania and depression) both enhance and inhibit creativity.

“Manic Depression and Creativity” provides an overview of what aspects of manic depression give rise to genius. Depression, they explain, impairs intellectual processes and blocks one’s ability to generate ideas. Depressed people lose the will to work and become overly critical of what they are doing to the point where they will abandon all of their projects. Nevertheless, the pain of depression can give rise to a dedication to one’s work (1).

One is more likely to put a dedicated effort into his work if he feels as though his life is depending on it. Depression often causes a delusion that if one’s work is not perfect, his career will be destroyed. In addition, depression inhibits other enjoyments in life such as social interests, which must be substituted by work. Lastly, the sufferer often uses his work, even if the outcome is worthless, to ease or distract him from his pain (1).

Hershman and Lieb demonstrate that depression can aid genius with a short biography of Sir Isaac Newton. Newtown was described as “solitary and dejected” by fellow students while he studied at Cambridge University. Reflective of his depression, he isolated himself from other students and immersed himself in school work. As a result, he excelled as a student (1). Depression, as shown by Newton’s biography, can give rise to a stern discipline to one’s work.

This point of view is unlike anything I have read before. I had always thought that depression destroys any ability to think or produce creative thought. Depression, I believed, was the cause of one’s inability to work. While Hershman and Lieb do explain that this is true, their argument that depression is a double edge sword (it both inhibits and facilitates creativity) is very interesting and convincing.

Mania, as well can enhance creativity and genius. It enables people to conjure inspiration. During mania, one thinks fast and is flooded with ideas, and grandiosity propels one to go forward with large ambitions (1). This explanation of how mania inspires creativity is very interesting but not surprising. Hershman and Lieb demonstrate how mania facilitates creativity with a biography of Ludwig van Beethoven.

Ludwig van Beethoven often attributed his depression to his loss of hearing. As a composer, he lost his livelihood when he lost his hearing. Mania was actually vital to the survival of his creativity. Without which, the deaf Beethoven would have retreated from composing music out of despair. Beethoven’s mania-induced grandiosity and ambition caused him to create musical pieces beyond what any deaf composer could have done (1). In this sense, mania is a driving force behind ingenuity. The reason why Beethoven’s creativity survived was because his large ambitions and grandiosity during his mania prodded it.

Despite the accounts for how manic depression facilitates creativity, Hershman and Lieb also explain that manic depression may diminish creativity. With regards to depression, they explain how delusions of one’s self-worthlessness often results in one’s inability to hold interest in one’s projects. Depression slows down thinking and prevents new ideas from being formed (1). “Manic Depression and Creativity” provides a biographical account of Charles Dickens to illustrate this aspect of depression.

By his mid thirties, Charles Dickens had already had much wealth, companionship, fame, and fulfillment of his ambitions. All this would all disappear when depression arrived; at least it would in his mind. Dickens suffered from an onset of depression after his son was born. Depression came in the way of his new book, “The Chimes.” Dickens simply could not write his story due to distraction and lack of energy. Rather than making progress with a stern discipline, he withdrew from his work due to depression (1). In this situation we see how depression served as an obstacle to creativity. A man, whom one would expect to be the happiest man alive, was the saddest. His depression inhibited his ability to utilize his genius within.

Likewise, mania can interfere with creativity and genius. Mania may cause one to become too restless and impatient to accomplish anything. The rapid thoughts may come too fast to materialize before a new ideas appear, and nothing substantial results in the end. Sometimes, mania causes one to overtake a task that is overambitious or even impossible. Many times, one will waste time and money on such projects, in which they have no talent or training. As mania increases, one loses touch with what is realistic (1). Hershman and Lieb provide a biography of Vincent Van Gogh to describe the harsh effects of mania on creativity.

Unlike Dickens, Van Gogh never achieved fame or wealth in his lifetime. He had no reason to think that he was accomplished, but his mania-induced grandiosity convinced him that he was godlike. He was overconfident in his art (a type which was looked down upon in that time period), and he would pursue it vigorously. Instead of taking time off from his art to earn money, he would simply not eat. Impulsivity was another manic trait that he suffered. He would rapidly change projects and throw away much unfinished work (1). In a sense, mania did not necessarily interfere with his creativity. Mania can invoke radical and creative ideas. Nevertheless, it certainly gets in the way of one’s ability to materialize them. While one may have creative ideas, he needs the means to implement, and mania interferes with this.

Reading about bipolar disorder and creativity leaves one off confused. Both mania and depression facilitate and inhibit genius, but when? When does depression (or mania) aid creativity and when is manic depression an obstacle? Hershman and Lieb explain that mild depression and mania give way to enhanced creativity while severe depression and mania hinder it. Mild mania provides one with high energy while allowing him to still maintain discipline, patient, and focus on his work. Likewise, mild depression also aids creativity. Those who are mildly depressed are not so disabled that they are nonproductive – instead, they have a sense of duty to work. Also, work may serve as a distraction from the pain, and one’s hypersensitivity to criticism motivates one to be extra diligent (1). When looking back, all subjects of the biographies were geniuses who contributed much to society. It is important to note that all four characters had both mild and severe highs and lows. Each biography was a selective period of times in their lives to demonstrate how each aspect of the disorder enhances and inhibits genius.

I thoroughly enjoyed “Manic Depression and Creativity.” The book provided an in-dept overview of the correlation between bipolar disorder and creativity. One of the last class topics this semester was the nervous system and reality. We concluded that “reality” is simply our nervous system’s perception of actual reality. This is very evident when observing the realities of bipolar individuals. While mania and depression may alter one’s reality from the mainstream one, a ‘healthy’ individual has no ability to claim that a bipolar person’s reality is ‘wrong’ or ‘dangerous’. I think Hershman and Lieb do a great job in explaining that these altered realities actually give rise to genius and creativity. Hence, the message I take from this book is that we need to approach the ‘disorder’ as a gift rather than a disorder – at least the mild form of it.


Cited Material

(1) Hershman, D., and Julian Lieb. Manic Depression and Creativity. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.

Comments

Patrick E.McWilliams's picture

Manic depression

I'am one. M-D and P.t.s.d.

I'am writing my story over the next few months. With the idea in mind of book documentary etc. or for future family reference.

My true life story includes many detours on the way to rediscovery of a mineral deposit that I lost and 30 some years later found
and the story continues.

I'am looking for someone or group to collaborate with me on this journey.detours included ,FBI-National security, SDI -Pres. Reagan, CBS -Charles Kuralt , to name a few.

Details can be followed as I post details to my website: or Goggle critical and strategic minerals exploration

Douglas Eby's picture

Depression as an advantage

One author who would agree with the perspective of depression being a kind of gift is Tom Wootton, author of The Depression Advantage, and The Bipolar Advantage.

He notes, "Each time I was forced to experience depression it became more clear to me.. My scale began to change from one based on pain to one based on a much richer perception of what was going on." [From my site page Depression and Creativity.

In his article The Art of Seeing Depression, he writes, "It was the misery of depression that brought me to the realization that I am mentally ill. The unbearable pain is what helped me to recognize the torture I have done to others.

"Without the heartache I would never have learned who I really am and come to understand the power of acceptance. Without the despair I would not have had the desire to become a better person."

Paul Grobstein's picture

bipolar disorder and creativity

Sounds like "gift" may be a bit too positive, but perhaps something one has that one can learn/grow from? In which case, its not so different from other things that may both contribute to and detract from creativity? For more on the debilitating effects of depression, see David Hume's A Letter to a Physician. For more on creativity, see Creativity, the Mind, and the Brain.

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