The Paradoxes of Bipolar and Creativity

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As a follow-up to my last post…this morning I found a wonderful article on Wired that discusses the paradoxes of Bipolar and creativity.  This article not only cites resources that claim ‘melancholy can sharpen cognition,’ it also speaks to mania being a prime motivator.  This, I believe, is a fair and equitable description of how bipolar can, utilizing both ends of the spectrum of the illness, foster creativity.

Andreasen [Melancholy and Creativity research pioneer],  for instance,  found that prominent British novelists and poets were eight times as likely as the general population to suffer from major depression. In another paper she

found that nearly 40 percent of the successful creative people she investigated had the disorder, a rate that’s approximately twenty times higher than it is in the general population. (More recently, the psychiatrist Hagop Akiskal found that nearly two-thirds of a sample of influential European artists were bipolar. )

Another interesting quote:

But why? In the past, Andreasen has offered that the energy and confidence that mania produces can help someone start and finish an ambitious work of art — damned handy, since every ambitious work at times (usually many times) seems impossible. Now she adds that the ideas one comes up with during such phases tend to be quite original, as the manic person, in a set of long-distance synaptic leaps that Lehrer explains earlier, draws associations that lie beyond the reach of more ordinary modes of thought.

The ideas they come up with, in short, can be a bit crazy. If they spit them out then and published them, they’d likely be of little worth. But, as Lehrer explains,

then the mania ebbs. The extravagant high descends into a profound low. While this volatility is horribly painful, it can also enable creativity, since the exuberant ideas of the manic period are refined during the depression.

In other words, the emotional extremes of the illness reflect the extremes of the creative process: there is the ecstatic generation phase, full of divergent thoughts, and the attentive editing phase, in which all those ideas are made to converge. This doesn’t take away, of course, from the agony of the mental illness, and it doesn’t mean that people can create only when they’re horribly sad or manic. But it does begin to explain the significant correlations that have been repeatedly observed between depressive syndromes and artistic achievement.

The article concludes with a link to my favorite documentary about bipolar disorder by none other than my absolute favorite Brit, Stephen Fry.  Please make time to view the outstanding, The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive.  It is well worth the time.

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9 thoughts on “The Paradoxes of Bipolar and Creativity

    Sandy Sue said:
    April 10, 2012 at 9:41 PM

    Wow. I sat here and watched Part 1 and Part 2 of Steven Fry’s documentary. I loved it. Very balanced. I wouldn’t push the button either.

      ManicMuses responded:
      April 12, 2012 at 1:43 AM

      :)You know, me neither. Because once you’ve walked with angels…

        Sandy Sue said:
        April 12, 2012 at 4:51 AM

        Oh, I know! Wasn’t that the coolest statement!

    Ruby Tuesday said:
    April 13, 2012 at 8:19 AM

    Once again proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that, even for someone with bipolar disorder, I am the exception. . . ;)

    shemikasprague@yahoo.com said:
    April 15, 2012 at 9:47 PM

    I am 25 and live with Bi-polar, lets just say that if I had to pick any disorder “in the book” (DSM-IV) I would choose Bi-polar… I am who I am, and I know that I have been given what I got for a reason:)

      ManicMuses responded:
      April 16, 2012 at 9:41 AM

      :) Great attitude – I love it!

    The Mental Chronicles said:
    April 21, 2012 at 2:36 PM

    Sandy Sue sent me here after reading one of my own posts on the same topic… This is just so fascinating! It’s so true though, now that I think about it. My depressions do inspire me. Interesting documentary, too.

      ManicMuses responded:
      April 22, 2012 at 10:26 AM

      Hi! Thanks for stopping in. I’m glad you liked the post. I think one point folks overlook is that inspiration can come from depression, but that doesn’t mean you start creating while depressed. (Sometimes I’ll wait 6 months before starting a project I thought of while in the caves.) Does this happen to you as well?

        The Mental Chronicles said:
        April 22, 2012 at 2:31 PM

        Oh my god, yes. I’ll get ideas, but I’ll be too down or out of it to act on them. I also tend to start projects when I’m not depressed, and then when I end up down again, I abandon them for months at a time, which drives people I know crazy. They would much rather see me see a project through from beginning to end, but I just can’t do that.

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