Recent research is yielding insights into the connections between bipolar and creativity—and not just artistic accomplishment, but also innovative thinking and entrepreneurship.
Author Virginia Woolf saw her artistry and her mood extremes as being inextricably linked. In a letter to a friend in 1930, she wrote of her “madness” that “in its lava, I still find most of the things I write about.”
Vincent Van Gogh’s feverish visions of starry nights, the intense vulnerability of a Judy Garland performance, the originality of Robert Lowell’s confessional poetry—there’s a long list of immensely talented but troubled souls who have been diagnosed with a mood disorder in their lifetimes or in retrospect.
Since Aristotle, great thinkers have wondered about the connection between brain-based disorders and great works of art or groundbreaking insights. Yet researchers still wrestle with why—and even whether—people with bipolar and other mental health disorders are likely to be more creative than average.
“In my mind, at this stage, there is an unquestionable association between bipolar disorder and creativity,” says Simon Kyaga, MD, PhD.
Kyaga, who is based at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, has published large-scale investigations into a possible link between having a psychiatric diagnosis and entering the creative professions.
In one study significant for its size and scope, Kyaga and colleagues analyzed data from 300,000 patients hospitalized with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and unipolar depression between 1973 and 2003. They found that individuals with bipolar disorder—and importantly, undiagnosed relatives of individuals with either bipolar or schizophrenia—are significantly overrepresented in the arts and sciences.
An even larger population analysis, published in 2018, looked at the question from the other way around. The conclusion: Individuals who had studied one of the creative arts in high school or college had higher odds of developing bipolar or another serious mental health disorder.
“Most people with bipolar disorder are not more creative than the average person,” Kyaga notes. “But as a group, [they] are more likely to be creative.”
The pioneering academic proponent of a link between bipolar disorder and artistic accomplishment is psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, PhD, co-director of the Mood Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins University. Jamison, who has bipolar I, began researching the topic in the 1980s, noting a correlation between hypomania and the intensely creative periods that artists describe. Both may be “characterized by increases in enthusiasm, energy, self-confidence, speed of mental association, fluency of thoughts, elevated mood, and a strong sense of well-being,” she wrote.
Andrew M., 30, a San Diego-based rapper who goes by the name Quiet Comedian, feels that he’s more productive and creative when he’s hypomanic.
“When I’m up, everything is flowing, coming naturally. That’s when I’m at my best with my music,” he says.
Andrew, who has a bipolar II diagnosis, says he’s still able to craft his tunes when he’s depressed or stable, but not at the same pace. His raps about living with bipolar, social anxiety, and other mental health concerns have gotten thousands of views in the few months since he began posting on YouTube.
The rapper welcomes the connections he’s made through his art and the resulting opportunity to help others.
“I like to reply to every comment, even if I just say ‘thank you’ or answer a question. If it sounds very serious, I say, ‘You have go to the doctor or call the hotline.’”
The work brings its own rewards, too: “If you’re feeling down, you have something to look forward to. When you’re doing something you love, it can go a long way to making you feel better.”
An elusive gift
Jamison introduced her theory about the link between bipolar disorder and creativity to a general audience in her 1993 award-winning book Touched by Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. She returned to the subject in her latest book, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character, an in-depth analysis of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Lowell.
In a lecture at Swarthmore College after Touched by Fire was published, Jamison discussed some of the questions researchers continue to pursue: Are creative fervor and hypomania merely companion states, or does one somehow cause the other? Why are people with mood disorders overrepresented in the creative professions?
Research into “highly creative people” has been complicated by determining how to measure creativity, or even define it. One popular definition of creativity was coined by Robert E. Franken in his 1994 book, Human Motivation: “The tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others.” Twenty-first-century researchers have pared the definition down to: “Involving the production of novel, useful products.”
Nancy C. Andreasen, MD, PhD, a researcher and professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa, states it this way: “Creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things … that other people don’t see.”
Creativity, of course, isn’t limited to the arts. In a small 2012 study, Andreasen found that scientists and artists exhibited “strikingly similar” patterns of brain activation while performing a word association task during a functional magnetic resonance (fMR) imaging, a non-invasive technique for measuring and mapping brain activity.
Sheri L. Johnson, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, has been exploring creative accomplishment and bipolar by looking at business entrepreneurs.
Johnson recently completed a study of 1,000 business types that found those who were more likely to become successful entrepreneurs had mild hypomanic symptoms. “And among entrepreneurs,” Johnson says, “hypomanic tendencies were related to higher scores of success,” such as company growth over a three-year period.
In a 2015 study of 221 undergraduates, Johnson identified a correlation among greater ambition, higher risk of mania and creativity.
A year later, Johnson sought a better understanding of how artists view the connection between their disease and their creative gifts. Twenty-two individuals self-identified as highly creative and living with bipolar disorder participated in focus groups. The following themes emerged:
Mania can be associated with creativity intensity and high levels of energy while also being a hindrance to creative productivity;
More than half the participants described unusual states of creative thinking that they considered advantageous to their creative work;
More than half considered creativity central to their identity.
Johnson notes that establishing a firm connection between bipolar disorder and heightened creativity could help challenge stigma by demonstrating the positive attributes associated with the condition.
“I think the link is there and we’re at the beginning of trying to understand the mechanism,” she says.
The concern is, adds Johnson, that some individuals “quit their medication to ‘protect’ their creativity,” she adds. “Each time they go through a [manic] episode, they may lose some of the resources needed to protect their creative trajectory—less money, less support from friends, less confidence in themselves.”
As proof that hypomania is necessary for creativity, Johnson points to studies like Kyaga’s that show undiagnosed relatives of people with bipolar test higher on creativity scales than the general public. Presumably, family members carry the same genetic traits for creativity, but not the debilitating symptoms of the disease.
Missy D., a British-born painter who lives in Seattle, says mood extremes make it harder for her to produce her art. When experiencing “short, hypomanic episodes” she develops insomnia, has difficulty sitting still, her movements become faster, her heart races and she feels a buzzing in her limbs.
During these periods, she’ll undertake easier tasks in the studio, such as casting, mold making and running errands. She adds that hypomania does produce “bursts of super sharp mental clarity.”
“I come up with a lot of complex, involved ideas for new projects in the studio during these times, but bringing them to fruition doesn’t normally happen until I’ve calmed down, if ever,” she adds. “My ability as an artist becomes more conceptual rather than physical. I’m not sure whether the work I produce is objectively ‘better’.”
When Missy is in a depressive phase, she goes to the studio and molds clay “to work through the white fog,” she says. “ I just play about with the clay and discuss ideas in an organic way. The mindful, playful angle of this pulls me gradually into reality.”
Ambitious and solution-oriented
Sheri Johnson isn’t the only researcher trying to tease out specific characteristics present in both creative individuals and people diagnosed with (or at higher risk for) bipolar. Other researchers have examined traits such as openness to experience, the ability to identify many solutions to the same problem (known as divergence), or a willingness to pursue challenging goals.
Jason B. of Dallas took a huge risk when he poured his energies into writing, producing, directing and starring in his first film, Donovan. Jason, 44, bought himself some how-to books on screenwriting and spent a year writing a draft of the film, which netted awards at two U.S. film festivals in 2017.
Jason says the multiple roles he played in the making of the movie tapped into different parts of his brain, toggling between “the business side of things” and the artistic demands of directing and acting.
“I was on my medication so I had no wild mood swings,” he recalls. “But I was able to shift gears—going from extreme logic to extreme creativity at the flick of a switch.”
He adds that treatment “means I have better control of what’s going on.”
Donovan is a semi-autobiographical story of a man struggling to accept his bipolar diagnosis and come to terms with childhood trauma. The main character ultimately realizes that being stable and present for his young child take precedence over the wild euphoria of his mania.
Jason was diagnosed in his late 20s, but it took him some time to embrace sobriety and commit to his medication regimen. He has since remarried and settled into a career as a freelance web designer.
“I learned so much about myself and who I am through making this film,” Jason says. “I didn’t choose the movie, it chose me, and I’m proud of it.”
Clearing the chaos
Jason says he’s been channeling the “chaos, clutter and uncertainty in his head” into creative expression since high school, when he learned to draw and play the drums.
“I was being honest in the moment in a creative outlet in a way I couldn’t be with other people,” he says. “I could draw whatever I wanted to and no one would ask questions. If I was coming to terms with an emotion, I would beat the crap out of the drums.”
Art is a way to explore your emotions—including the dark ones–without being destructive in real life, he says: “You can paint a beautiful picture or drink yourself to oblivion.”
Missy, the Seattle-based painter, was weary of hiding her bipolar diagnosis to the world. She decided on a bold way to “come out”: She would paint one canvas a day for a year while off her medications, then exhibit the results.
According to Missy, “each painting would be an attempt to reflect my emotional and psychological state—mania, depression or stability—over that 24-hour period.”
Beginning in December 2013, Missy rose every morning to jot down a few sentences about how she was feeling. Then she would attempt to convert the written word into a visual form.
Her mood switches, she says, were visible in her paintings—especially when she was rapid cycling. For Missy, that can mean switching from depression to mania in one day. “I can feel hypomanic in the morning and then crash down in the evening,” she says.
During the 12 months of her artistic project, Missy experienced “drastic” mood swings. It didn’t help that she was traveling between studios in New York City and Brussels, and later between Brussels and Seattle.
“It was pretty stressful and tiring,” she says. In addition to the daily painting, Missy was producing other work, organizing and holding an exhibition in Brussels (May 2013) and seeking funding to keep the project going.
Missy did not find the project “particularly therapeutic.” In fact, it sometimes exacerbated her depression or mania.
“The worst time came when the project was over and I crash-landed in the hospital [with] emotional and physical exhaustion,” Missy recalls, adding that she then went back on her medication.
“It was the sensible thing to do,” says Missy from her home in Seattle.
Missy says psychiatric medication affords her greater periods of stability, but she still experiences some symptoms of depression and hypomania.
From Missy’s journey, two books were born, including The Aesthetic of Mental Disorder: 2:365, Bipolar and Beyond, which will be available this March.
To her unexpected delight, Missy has become a mentor.
“I received emails and letters from people with bipolar from around the world,” she said. “People told me I helped them learn to be more open about what they have—and that the creative arts can help them.”
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They’re called the “healing arts” for a reason
For those of us who have trouble drawing a straight line, it’s important to remember you don’t have to be artistic to benefit from the healing powers of the creative process.
“Art-making is therapy in and of itself,” said Tally Tripp, director of the art therapy program at George Washington University. Art therapists, often trained in both mental health counseling and studio art, use paints, pastels, clay and other mediums to help clients “explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, reduce anxiety, develop social skills, gain self-awareness and increase self-esteem,” according to the American Art Therapy Association, based in Alexandria, Virginia.
“The act of creating art can uncover a lot of feelings a person might not have access to in normal conversation,” says Tripp, adding that emotional release often makes it easier to cope with stress.
In the art studio, says Tripp, something magical happens: “You take yourself out of yourself. You are distracting yourself with something pleasurable. We are going to create something.
“Right away, you are doing something with your problem. You are sharing your art. You feel more heard.”
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