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.
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.
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.
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.