There is a strong association between bipolar disorder and creativity, and much more to be understood.
You might have an idea of what makes a person creative, or you might be a creative person yourself. Creative people stand out from the masses in being high in trait openness, with high receptivity towards ideas and experiences and more tolerant of uncertainty.
These traits allow the creative person to perceive, understand and create more, but with the added vulnerability to doubt, rejection, and dark moods.
In Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Tempermanent, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison from Johns Hopkins University estimates that bipolar disorder is ten to forty times more common among artists than in the normal population.
Many Famous Artists, Musicians, and Authors Have Gone Through Periods of Manic Symptoms
Some artists even went so far as to credit their creative genius and innovative ideas with their extreme “moods of the mind”. As described by Kay Redfield, Ernest Hemingway was known to have suffered from bipolar disorder, as well as authors Hans Christian Anderson, Honore de Balzac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Mark Twain, and Virginia Woolf. The poets William Blake, TS Eliot, John Keats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Walt Whitman, and the composers Ludwig van Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Gustav Mahler, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Robert Schumann, and Peter Tchaikovsky are also known or thought to have suffered from bipolar disorder.
As included along with other first-hand accounts of manic episodes in the book Meaning of Madness by Neel Burton, the highly esteemed author Virginia Woolf wrote of her own struggles with bipolar disorder in a letter to her friend Ethel Smyth:
“I married, and then my brains went up like a shower of fireworks. As an experience, madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things that I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets as sanity does. And the six months…that I lay in bed taught me a good deal about what is called oneself.”
As described above, most creative bipolar sufferers do not actively create during their depressive episodes, but instead use these times as inspiration for their next pieces when they are in more positive emotional states, states that may involve the broadening of attention and thinking and widen the space for novel thoughts, percepts and images to come into awareness.
Studies On Mood Disorders And Creativity
The first empirical study of the link between mood disorders and creativity was carried out by the psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen in the 1970s. She studied the medical histories of a group of 30 well-known authors (including Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Yeats, and John Cheever) and discovered a strong correlation between creativity and mood disorders.
Eighty per cent of the authors in her sample study had experienced at least one episode of major depression, hypomania, or mania, compared to a control group of only thirty per cent. Upon following up fifteen years later, 43% of the authors met the criteria for bipolar disorder, compared to only ten per cent from the control group (and approximately 1% in the general population).
A 2007 study by Santosa and colleagues found that bipolar sufferers and creative discipline controls were found to have similarly enhanced creativity on the Barron-Welsh Art Scale, a measure of creativity, compared to healthy controls.
While the link is strong between bipolar and creativity, bipolar disorder by itself is neither necessary nor sufficient for creative genius. it’s important to note that not all bipolar sufferers are creative, and for those who are suffering, their creative prowess tends to peak during periods of remission from manic/depressive episodes or during mild symptoms.
Overall, a strong association between mood disorder and creativity has been established, but much of the current evidence has been anecdotal, autobiographical, and biographic, with a narrow range of controlled studies. Future research should pave the way for a more empirical understanding of the association between bipolar disorder and creativity.