The Fine Line Between Genius and Madness: High Functioning Bipolar Syndrome and the Arts
By Dawoud Kringle
(AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article is for general information purposes only, and is NOT intended to diagnose or cure any illness or condition. The author invites the reader to further research. If you suspect yourself to suffer in any way described herein, you are urged to seek professional help.)
“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.” – Shakespeare
Ludwig Van Beethoven was known for his violent and unpredictable mood swings almost as much as he was known for his musical genius. Pablo Picasso, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, was similarly known for his extremes of moods and behavior. Jimi Hendrix’ song “Manic Depression” described an insider’s view of an illness now termed bipolar disorder. Brian Wilson, Gaetano Donizetti, Francis Ford Coppola, Alvin Ailey, Jaco Pastorius, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, Vincent van Gogh, Lord Byron, Phil Ochs, Lou Reed, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Amy Winehouse, Sylvia Plath, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and an extensive list of others share the volatile combination of bipolar syndrome and artistic genius.
Creative / artistic people are generally different from others in that they are more open to experience, exploration, risk tasking, and tolerance of ambiguity. Such traits make them see and feel and understand more, but they also make them hurt more easily, and be more prone to experience suffering and dark moods. A creative person experiences the ordered structure that others find logical and comforting as inhibiting, constricting, frustrating, and even suffocating. For this reason, they feel the need to confront norms and conventions, discard the certitudes of absolute definitions, and enter into a more nuanced spectrum of both existence and interpretation. This allows them to enter into periods of intense concentration, focus, heightened consciousness, stimulated activity, and the intense productivity of the creative process; all of which can resemble trance or hypomanic episode.
Bipolar disorder is a chronic mental illness that causes extreme changes in mood which alternate between happy, energetic highs (mania) and sad, paralyzing lows (depression). These shifts in mood may occur anywhere from several times a week to a couple of times a year.
There are three main types of bipolar disorder:
1, Bipolar I disorder – People with bipolar I have at least one manic episode. These manic episodes may be preceded or followed by a major depressive episode (however, depression isn’t required for a diagnosis of bipolar I disorder).
2. Bipolar II disorder – People with bipolar II have one or more major depressive episodes lasting at least two weeks. They can experience one or more mild hypomanic episodes lasting at least four days. In hypomanic episodes, symptoms are milder than those associated with manic episodes, but are still excitable, energetic, and impulsive.
3. Cyclothymic disorder. People with cyclothymic disorder (or cyclothymia) experience hypomanic and depressive episodes lasting two years or longer. The shifts in mood tend to be less severe in this form of bipolar disorder.
While there are different levels of the bipolar disorder spectrum, the symptoms of hypomania, mania, and depression are similar in most people.
Within the vast spectrum of mental health disorders, bipolar disorder is considered to be a serious condition. Bipolar disorder is experienced and handled by people in a multitude of ways and high-functioning bipolar disorder is a reality for many. These people care for themselves, engage socially, and keep (and possibly excel at) their job. Sometimes, this high level of function is the result of successful treatment; other times it’s a survival mechanism, barely allowing them to function while navigating the obstacles of their illness.
While such people are known to excel in the arts, it’s not uncommon to encounter physicians, lawyers, or corporate CEOs with bipolar disorder.
There is a notable link between mania and intelligence. Researchers at the University of Glasgow published the results to an investigation into the possible relationship between intelligence and bipolar disorder. A group of 1,881 children underwent intelligence tests at the age of 8. At the ages of 22 or 23, these same subjects again met with researchers and were assessed for mania, the defining feature of bipolar I disorder. The results showed a clear relationship between extremes in mania and intelligence. Individuals who scored in the top 10% of manic features had a childhood IQ almost 10 points higher than those who scored in the lowest 10%. This correlation appeared strongest for those with high verbal IQ.
In 2010, the British Journal of Psychiatry compared the final exam grades of over 700,000 15-16 year old Swedish students in 1988-1997 with bipolar disorder-induced hospital admissions. Students who had excellent exams and high marks in humanities, language arts, and music were four times more likely to be hospitalized for bipolar disorder by the age of 31.
This suggests the possibility that mania may improve intellectual and academic performance, and may account for the theoretical link with genius. People with mild mania are often witty and inventive, appearing to have enhanced access to vocabulary, memory and other cognitive resources. They tend to have exaggerated emotional responses which may facilitate their talent in art, literature, or music. In a manic state, individuals display heightened levels of stamina and sustained concentration.
However, the Swedish study also showed that students with poor academic performance were also more likely to develop bipolar disorder. The relationship between bipolar disorder and intellect is not straightforward. There appears to be two distinct groups of people with the condition; high achievers whose mania stimulates their accomplishments, and low achievers who may have subtle neurodevelopmental abnormalities.
The appearance of a link between bipolar disorder and intelligence amongst some people presents a real danger in glamorizing the illness. This threatens to obscure the suffering of others living with the disorder.
Erika Nielsen is a professional cellist who, in her 20s, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In her book Sound Mind: My Bipolar Journey From Chaos to Composure which Nielsen described as part memoir and part self-care manual), she wrote of her experience with the disease. In a recent interview on the Psych Center Podcast, she pointed out that bipolar disorder often starts as major depression, often (and in her case) beginning in childhood. By her 20s, she suspected that there was something more to her problem than mere depression, and at age 28 she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Nielsen said that she’d misinterpreted her bouts with mania as simply her “bubbly” personality, and of her artistic expression. But, in her manic state, her thoughts would come and go too fast for her to properly articulate or put into practical application. Part of her recovery process was to let go of the stigma of mental illness, and of the idea that her mania was the sole source of her artistic ideas. To her, “Mania masquerades as artistic creativity in the same way that lust masquerades as true lasting love.” Once Nielsen successfully treated her condition, she is more capable of tapping into artistic inspiration, and bringing her ideas to fruition.
In the 1970s, Nancy Andreasen carried out the first empirical study of creativity and mental disorder at the University of Iowa. In studying the mental histories of a group of 30 prominent authors, she found that 80% of her sample of authors had experienced at least one episode of major depression, hypomania, or mania, compared to only 30% of a matched control group. During 15 years of follow-ups, Andreasen found that 43% cent of them had bipolar disorder compared to only 10% of the control group and 1% of the general population.
There is an argument that bipolar disorder has genetic causes; and some theorize that it may even be an evolutionary mechanism. Those with bipolar disorder usually tend to have fewer children. This suggests that the responsible genes are being maintained despite their potentially debilitating effects on a significant proportion of the population, and thus that they must be conferring an important adaptive or evolutionary advantage. Population groups with a high proportion of creative individuals are likely to be more artistically and culturally developed, with a stronger sense of identity and purpose and tighter social cohesion. They are also likely to be more scientifically and technologically advanced, and more economically and militarily successful. As a result of these important adaptive advantages, such population groups are more likely to survive and the genes for bipolar disorder to be maintained and propagated.
Ultimately, artistic genius is not the result of bipolar disorder, or vice verse, despite its presence among many artistic and musical geniuses. In fact, among many people, the illness is associated with difficulties that prevent high levels of achievement and which severely impacts their ability to function. Artists with bipolar disorder tend to be at their most creative during periods of remission when symptoms are either mild or absent. Most artists with bipolar disorder report that they cannot create when they are depressed, but often use their experience of depression as a source of future artistic inspiration. Nor can they create when they are manic or psychotic because their concentration and thinking are too disorganized and chaotic to produce anything coherent.
“If I could have worked without this accursed disease, what things I might have done.” – Vincent Van Gogh