“The subject of genius and mental illness has been discussed and debated on a scientific level for decades. Our cultural awareness of the link between mental disorder and genius is as old as philosophy. Plato wrote of what he called “divine madness,” and Aristotle recognized that creative people tended toward melancholia. It is no coincidence that such a high percentage of American Nobel and Pulitzer Prize – winning writers are also alcoholics” (Saltz, 9).
It was these lines in M.D. Gail Saltz’ book The Power of Different that led me to read this psychiatrist and bestselling author’s take on mental illness as a driving force for creativity. Saltz relies on scientific research, stories from historical geniuses and from everyday individuals who have not only made the most of their conditions but have also flourished because of them.
Being a blogger on mental health, specifically bipolar disorder, the idea of disorder being linked to genius extremely interested me. Saltz found in multiple studies, bipolar disorder has been scientifically, clinically proven to correlate with creativity and the artistic temperament (Saltz 136). Being both an artist and a person suffering with bipolar disorder this peaked my interest even more.
Clinical psychologist and writer Kay Redfield Jamison writes in her book Touched with Fire that Saltz references, “Many of the changes in mood, thinking and perception that characterize the mildly manic states – restlessness, ebullience, expansiveness, irritability, grandiosity, quickened and more finely tuned senses, intensity of emotional experiences, diversity of thought, and rapidity of associational processes – are highly characteristic of creative thought as well” (Saltz 145). Bipolar is a disorder that has links to creativity which can be traced back to writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Anne Saxton who unfortunately took their lives as a result of their cycling moods.
The most creative individuals however are not the “most well” or the “most ill” but rather are often “mildly ill.” Saltz references the research of Robert Bilder and Kendra Knudsen at the University of California, Los Angeles who observe this phenomena: “These are the individuals who can be diagnosed with all sorts of brain differences – like depression or bipolar disorder – who are simultaneously well treated and flexible enough to move back and forth between convergent and divergent thinking” (Saltz 206).
Examples of this kind of flexibility can be found in a forty-year longitudinal study conducted by Swedish researchers and published in the “Journal of Psychiatric Research:” “These researchers found that being an author “was specifically associated with increased likelihood of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide. Clearly the authors who suffered from these brain differences were functioning at a level high enough to enable them to produce publishable work. Moreover, these same researchers found much higher representation in scientific and artistic fields among those whose first-degree relatives had diagnosed mental illness” (Saltz 206).
In the words of Bilder and Knudsen, the creative brain needs to balance at “the edge of chaos: “the kind of creativity that produces novels, musical scores,entrepreneurial ideas, and scientific theories requires the ability to flip back and forth between organized and messy thinking” (Saltz 206).
Often times people with bipolar disorder who enjoy the creative frenzy that accompanies mania or hypomania neglect to take their medication in order to ride the high out a little longer, so to speak. The flurry of ideas that come during these manic episodes can seem intoxicating and I can speak from experience of a rush of ideas that came over me that all seemed pressing and yet I was too disorganized in thought to be able to hold any one idea down.
Nassir Ghaemi, Who treats many bright students in their teens and twenties, says, ” is that people with bipolar disorder can benefit from taking a broad view of their own creativity. When patients resist medication, the real issue they’re having is that they think about creativity is just one thing, as this kind of flash of inspiration that happens when you’re manic. And that is part of creativity, but there’s another kind of creativity.”(Saltz 150).
Ghaemi cites the work of psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques, who wrote about what he called “sculpted creativity”. “This is not a flash of inspiration, but it’s insights that overtime you put together, like a Sculptor. And it’s not something that happens all of a sudden. This durable sort of creativity depends on maintaining equilibrium over the long haul – that is, not burning out like a light bulb or losing time to severe manic and depressive episodes” (Saltz 150).
Ghaemi tells his patients the following: “instead of having a lot of creativity really briefly and then being depressed and fallow for a long time, you’re better off having less creativity more regularly, more consistently. it actually adds up more that way.” (Saltz 150).
In multiple studies, bipolar disorder has been scientifically, clinically proven to correlate with creativity and the artistic temperament (Saltz 136). I can speak from experience as a visual artist and writer with bipolar disorder that the shift between moods elevates my work in ways if I was quote on quote normal would not be as interesting. When I am hypomanic (not manic because that is too much of an extreme) I have creative ideas and am more able to execute them such as writing this blog on the link between creativity and bipolar disorder. When I swing into more of a depression, I am more prone to edit my work and create visual art because I ruminate more and am able to take on longer projects such as a big painting or technically precise artwork that takes several bouts of time.
However, I have been medicated for years and now notice a more sculpted creativity Nassir Ghaemi speaks of in that I have more creativity that is productive instead of bursts of disorganized manic ideas that I would have a harder time following through on. I am also prone to experience mania as psychosis and so my ideas turn psychotic in nature and no longer productive at all, like thinking I can buy eight mustangs with money I do not have.
I do notice an artistic temperament to bipolar disorder, in that us bipolar people tend to be more melancholic in nature and so reflect on the world in a more drawn out manner and have the gifts of mania/hypomania to illuminate ideas/ ways in which we can translate these thoughts to the general public, typically through writing and art. However, there is a pendulum effect to being productive with creativity in that you must ,as discussed above, be slightly insane but sane enough, or rather medicated enough, to be able to translate that insanity into something coherent. Me raving mad in the psych ward about the millions of dollars I have and trying to order things I cannot afford are not well executed ideas or a productive use of my illness. However, writing about it later while medicated provides others with bipolar disorder a sense of hope, that they can create normalcy out of insanity and even discuss it openly without shame or stigma. I couldn’t string more than two sentences coherently together while manic let alone write a full blog post. It is through medication that creativity can truly foster and grow. It is through balance that the bipolar mind can be as creative as it was meant to be.
The link between disorder and genius is evident through research and influential creators who are linked to this disorder. Virginia Woolf may have committed suicide but she is still arguably one of the best English writers of her time and for that matter even all time. Bipolar disorder has its pitfalls like in the case of Woolf a higher risk for suicide but it also creates a powerhouse of potential, the potential to create something meaningful from the chaos of the mind.