People with bipolar, including myself, try to get as much work done as possible during a hypo-manic or manic phase or a neutral stage because, one, they have excess energy and two, they don’t know when the next depression phase might hit.
(To know more about Bipolar Disorder view our article.)
During the manic episode, one feels a tremendous amount of energy and excitement flowing through their veins, which leads to a lot of work getting done, but as it is a manic phase, the certainty of the work getting done right is not there, because excess energy doesn’t mean excess precision. But it is considered better than no work getting done at all. During this phase, grandiose is a major possibility, like for instance, one might believe that they can write a great novel and they will start working on it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will write a GREAT novel.
Depression on the other hand is more introspective in nature and can lead to ideas that are intense and probably dark in nature, some of the great literature is given credit to the depressive nature of the author.
The problem with patients is that they worry (correctly) that the treatment will neutralize their moods and their creativity will take a dip, which is not entirely untrue. Thus, the psychiatrist has to create a plan where the patient’s creativity doesn’t take a dip but rather enhances over the lifetime of the treatment.
The problem with Bipolar treatment from a research perspective is that research in this spectrum that connects Bipolar and Creativity is very difficult due to various factors like an optimal sample to study, definition of creativity and appropriate comparison group. The majority of these studies have been conducted using a sample group of writers. The majority of evidence suggests that there is a link between mood disorders, particularly bipolar disorder, and creativity. Anecdotally, examples of Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Martin Luther King, Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill are used to state the connection between creativity and Bipolar Disorders
Up until the early 20th century, creatively gifted individuals were referred to as ‘Genius’. A study by Lewis Terman, where he followed the life of high IQ children determined that even though these children were more successful than their peers, they did not make and significant creative contributions, thus clarifying that IQ and creativity are two different mental traits.
Currently, creativity, in a general sense, is expressed as the ability to produce something that is novel, useful or beautiful in a broad sense.
Based on this, there are three ways to identify a sample to study viz. a homogenous group of creative individuals in a particular field or sample a mixture of creative individuals from multiple fields or lastly study creative individuals on whom there is written history available.
The earliest empirical study was done at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop with 15 writers and 15 control subjects with equivalent age, gender and educational achievements, these groups were steadily increased to 30 each. The study found that 80% of writers had some form of mood disorder while 30% had bipolar I or II, writers also had higher rates of alcohol abuse than the controls. This study has been replicated by several other researchers.
In 1989, Jamison published her work examining British writers and artists who had received some form of honour or award. Diagnostically she relies on whether the subject had received any form of treatment for a mood disorder. The subjects were classified into five groups: novelists, poets, playwriters, biographers and artists. 38% of the sample had been treated for a mood disorder with playwriters being the highest, with most receiving psychotherapy rather than medication. The poets had the highest rate of needing medication for a mood disorder while this was the only group that received treatment for mania.
Subsequently, Ludwig published a study in 1994 that also examined creativity in writers. He studied 59 female writers from the national Women Writers’ Conference held at the University of Kentucky. For a control group, he selected women with equivalent age and educational background from various clubs within the state. Both the groups differed in the kinds of diagnoses including mania, depression, anxiety. It was found that the rates were always higher in writers, rates of depression and mania were both significantly higher relatively.
These studies, though varying in methods, indicate towards the general idea that creative individuals have higher rates of mood disorder in general and especially bipolar.
Creativity and Bipolar Treatment
Many patients are worried that the creativity that flows through during a manic or hypomanic phase will be dulled down due to medication, and this is one of the main concerns with creative individuals. Some feel that high energy and euphoria lead to increased productivity. It has also been argued, by Sir George Pickering, that the depressive phase is like an incubation period where ideas slowly form and when the curtain of depression is lifted, all those ideas take form. He cites the likes of Charles Darwin, Mari Baker Eddy, Marcel Proust, Sigmund Freud, Florence Nightingale and Virginia Woolf as examples (anecdotally).
But there have been accounts on the opposite side of the spectrum where patients feel a complete lack of energy during the depression to be productive and while manic, feel very distractable and disorganised to be productive or creative.
Robert Lowell, a great American Poet, is a famous example of someone with bipolar who found himself to be creative and productive after being placed on Lithium.
Mogens Schou, who was largely responsible for the development of lithium as a treatment for bipolar, studied a group of 24 artists for productivity changes after being placed on lithium. He found 50% to have improved creativity and productivity while 25% showed no changes and the rest showed lowered productivity.
To summarize, creativity and bipolar disorder do have a genetic link, but the idea of going without treatment for the sake of creativity can lead to dangerous outcomes, including suicidal tendencies. There needs to be a lot more research on the subject so that the treatment can keep the creativity alive even when on mood stabilizers or anti-depressants.
As always, thank you for reading.
The relationship between creativity and mood disorders – Nancy C. Andreasen, MD, PhD
Creativity in Bipolar Disorder: Fabulous or Fatal? – Michael G. Pipich, MS, LMFT
Bipolar Disorder and Creativity – Healthline