By Juhie Bhatia Creativity and mental disorders often go hand-in-hand in popular culture. In particular, bipolar disorder, marked by extreme mood swings of mania to depression, has been associated with creative types, whether it’s the image of a mad genius or a tortured artist.
The relationship between bipolar disorder and creativity isn’t quite so clear-cut, though. Bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression) affects approximately 5.7 million American adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It’s unknown what percentage of those affected are creative, though many famous people have been linked to bipolar disorder, including artist Vincent van Gogh and writer Virginia Woolf. More recently, creative people in the public eye including actor and writer Carrie Fisher and musician Sinéad O’Connor have spoken about having bipolar disorder. Ample research and anecdotal evidence also supports this connection.
“There seems to be a higher prevalence of bipolar disorder among successful creative people, so we believe that there is probably a link. We don’t know, however, exactly what it is,” says Daniel Z. Lieberman, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Several studies support the bipolar disorder-creativity link. For example, Nancy Andreasen, M.D., of the University of Iowa, found that creative writers were far more likely to suffer from mental illness, primarily bipolar disorder, than their counterparts in other occupations. More recently, Stanford University researchers led by Terence A. Ketter, M.D., found that children who either had or were at high risk for bipolar disorder scored higher on a creativity index. Psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D. — who herself has bipolar disorder — has also studied the connection between creativity and bipolar disorder, as she relates in her book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and The Artistic Temperament.
However, some researchers believe that there’s no correlation between bipolar disorder and creativity. In a 2001 issue of Psychiatric Quarterly, Albert Rothenberg, M.D., wrote: “There have been in recent years increasing claims in both popular and professional literature for a connection between bipolar illness and creativity. A review of studies supporting this claim reveals serious flaws in sampling, methodology, presentation of results, and conclusions.”
Bipolar Creativity: What’s the Source?
Although there may be a connection between creativity and bipolar disorder, researchers don’t know why. Igor Galynker, MD, director of The Family Center for Bipolar Disorder at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and professor of clinical psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, says there probably are many reasons, such as the tendency for bipolar people to have higher IQs. There may also be a genetic component, caused by a gene that is expressed abnormally in bipolar people, which could lead to unorthodox thinking. Also, people who are manic for a prolonged period of time think and process information faster, which could produce results that are more creative and more productive.
Dr. Lieberman points out, however, that although mania may be associated with a feeling of being creative, often nothing of value is produced. He adds that personality traits may also contribute to this bipolar-creativity link, since people with bipolar are often very confident risk-takers, making them all the more willing to experiment with new modes of expression. Dr. Ketter, who has done numerous studies on the topic, agrees that temperament may provide an advantage to those with bipolar disorder.
Still, most exprts agree that those with bipolar disorder — whether they’re creative or not — should seek treatment. Dr. Galynker says that the right treatment can harness the out-of-control part of the illness, while keeping the creative part intact.
“If a person has bipolar disorder and has a fantasy that without taking their medication they’ll become a genius during the manic phase, this is a recipe for disaster,” he says. “The suicide rate in bipolar illness is 10 percent. You don’t want to take any chances.”