Does a bipolar state of mind encourage creative genius

“There’s a popular cliché that maybe craziness and creativity are allied, [that] if you’re schizophrenic, you’re more likely to be a genius inventor. That’s actually not the case. Schizophrenia, there’s no correlation with creativity. Instead, it’s really about depression and particularly bipolar depression. The leading hypothesis grows out of research showing states of being unhappy, being gloomy — when you’re sad you’re actually better able to focus.

“So people who are sad actually produce better artwork in the lab, better collages. Some studies indicate successful people are something like 25 times more likely to suffer from bipolar depression; it captures the natural swings of the creative process. Sometimes you want to be manic and have tons of new ideas, but then you also seem to benefit from a slightly sad, more melancholy phase.”,0,5354393.story

Interesting ideas, but…

Notably, this is an op-ed piece about a writer (not a scientist) and the research I’ve seen does not specify depression as the source of creativity. In fact, the results published recently by Scandinavian researchers (really an incredibly and clever study design) found a link between creativity and bipolar disorder – but not creativity and depression.

I think it’s silly to claim that depression leads to more focus which leads to creativity (because ADHD also leads to creativity through…less focus?) I have less focus when depressed, and way less cognitive function overall. I don’t care enough to do anything creative. Even if I did want to be creative, I wouldn’t have the focus to try. Maybe this hypothesis works for some people, but definitely not me…

So…yeah. This is the first time I’ve seen in print someone directly link depression to being creative during that phase of the illness. Normally I read all kinds of literature, op-ed pieces, etc about the bipolar individual being able to create because they have a wider understanding of the human experience spectrum. It’s during the depressed phase that people experience a depth that helps them do wonderful things when manic. Personally, if I already have something started then I can muddle through portions of the project while depressed, until the depression consumes me. There is *no way* I am capable of beginning anything new & creative while really depressed.

I could see the “perseveration” in depression being inspirational to some degree. There’s potential for a lot of reflexivity in depression, but it’s not always something that pans out – it would have to be a depression that’s mild enough that I wouldn’t really call it depression based on my own scale of what constitutes a mood state. I just tend to wallow, shut down, and stop functioning.

In my experience, however, inspiration just flows out of hypomania like nothing else. I come up with a lot of really good ideas, creative solutions, and out-of-the-box thinking. It’s when I sparkle, when I come up with unexpected connections that really illuminate my work and relationships, and I feel truly creative. So I think that guy really had it backward – this despite plenty of prior writing and evidence that it’s the hypomanic phases in particular that seem to be a trigger for creativity, or at least the expression of it.

When you read the whole article, it makes no sense. Leher (the science writer, sorry for the misspell) is all over the place, saying depression and ADHD foster creativity, then saying “only in the mild cases.” What a whack job!

We all know there’s a correlation there somewhere, but this dude-scientist is a joke.

Sandy! I was hoping you’d reply since you’re an artist and a writer. Lehrer (spell) poses an interesting hypothesis but as I said to DeeDee if I have something already started I can muddle through for parts of the depression until it consumes me. What about you? Does the looming depression make your art or your writing not better or worse but just different when you know it’s on the horizon? (The better or worse question is really part two of the overall idea, I think.)

It’s the presumption that someone could “benefit from a slightly sad, more melancholy phase” offends me, I guess. As if sadness was a state you needed or wanted to be able to create. I believe folks with BP are sensitive. I believe artists are sensitive. It’s the sensitivity that generates the creativity, not the specific bipolar states. The symptoms of depression get in my way–they do not help me “focus.” But I use what I have, which are the feelings and thoughts that come out of depression (and joy, and reflection, etc.).

Dude-scientist is not a scientist. He’s a scientific writer. That doesn’t imply scientific training. It’s journalism.

So he might have read an article and spun off on it. He might have read a few articles, in fact. That doesn’t mean that he knows how to do the sort of comprehensive literature review that is considered crucial in research work and which presents opportunity for a “fair and balanced” perspective to develop.

I think if the guy had really dug into the enormous volume of material on mood disorders and creativity, he would have also had to speak to the role of hypomania. Like a recent study that showed no link between depression and creativity, only bipolar and schizophrenia, and another that showed a number of positive character traits associated with bipolar due to the exceptional experiences of mood.

I do agree that ADHD can stimulate creativity because it leads to “divergent thinking” which is a very different way of seeing the world than typical linear thought patterns. But relative severity is so subject, it seems silly to claim that only mild conditions lead to creativity. They might lead to greater productivity due to less impairment of cognitive function, but I can’t imagine why milder cases would lead to more creativity.

I would have to vehemently disagree here. I won’t deny that I may find inspiration from the times when I am depressed, but in the actual state of depression I am far too paralyzed and scattered to do anything remotely creative.

Just my two.

Looks like everyone who replied is in agreement – not one of us is worth a fig when we’re depressed. (Glad I’m not the only one.) I’d love to know if he’s ever suffered from a clinical depression in his life.

Thrilled you addressed this ongoing mystique–and, essentially, myth–about bipolar creative genius. Yes, there are SOME bipolar geniuses, but there are many who spend so much time fighting their illness that there is little energy left for creativity. The desire for such creativity is no excuse, ever, for letting episodes go unmanaged.

I read a stat somewhere that if you’re bipolar you’re more likely to have a high IQ (but if you have a high IQ you aren’t more likely to be bipolar). There are plenty of creative types who do not suffer from any mental illness at all. But, in my own un-scientific survey I find that the BPs in my sphere are definitely creative. However, when they are in the worst grip of depression they shut down and go silent for a while. I see some validity to his argument but the one thing he never addresses is severity. Therein lies the rub.

I don’t know whether I have bipolar disorder or not. The jury’s still out on that. I can say, though, that I think sometimes my depression does make me more creative. It varies widely, though. I experience my depression in many different ways. Sometimes it can give me this ability to focus on one task at hand, which I will do as a distraction. I think for writing fiction it is a useful mindset. Stories are all about conflict; without conflict, there’s no plot. I like to write things that explore how characters are thinking, and I feel like aspects of my depression give me a deeper glimpse into how inner life is experienced. Somehow, it helps me see other viewpoints. I’m finding it hard to put what I mean into words; it’s more like this instinctual feel I get that I can use in my writing. I also use writing as an outlet. If I felt overjoyed with my life all the time, I wouldn’t feel the need to explore the deeper issues I like to write about.

I agree that the writer only seems conversant with surface matters, though.

I agree that there are times when I’m depressed, such as when I’m feeling intensely self-destructive, when I would never be able to be creative. However, there is the more contemplative, rueful sort of depression, and I think I am more creative with that one sometimes.

Thanks for replying – hope you’re doing well. Since you’re the only respondent who somewhat agrees with the article, I have to ask…do you find that you are more creative in general or is there a certain medium you tend to do well in?

I do think I’m more inclined to write poetry if I’m in a deeply depressive state. Usually, I don’t write poetry, though. I think I’d just be more creative in general. Like I channel all of my anger, hurt, rage, and despair into what I’m writing. What I’m writing would be a dark piece, however. So I guess it makes me more creative in terms of grappling with inner darkness and finding a way to capture it in a story or, in that rare moment, poetry.

As I mentioned, there are several types of depression that I experience. Some spells are different than others. There’s one type during which I’m not able to do anything, and instead I sit around crying or feeling bored or doing generally self-destructive things.

But it’s great that there are phases of your depression where you can be creative. That’s just great. I can relate to a degree. Beginning of depression, yes. I can still accomplish what I set out to. In the depths…no way. Thanks so much for sharing. It’s interesting to hear about your experience. Hope you’re doing well!

i wouldn’t wish my BP on anyone…i would trade it for any other malady in a second. i’m a musician, artist, writer and too damn smart for my on good as i see most of ya’ll here are. when i am in manic I can do anything, zero fear and my music soars. when i am depressed… i am useless and terrified of living. think of sucide every day. i use cocaine and it puts me in a temporay manic…i hate it but i don’t punish myself for using,…it’s like getting a break from feeling crazy. and don’t fool yourselves we are not well and there is no fuggin cure. it is sick to read that people would want to feel like i do when i will do anything to have a moment of “happy-ish feeling”

Hi, Patrick. Yeah, it’s a tough road sometimes. Well, most of the time 🙂 Do you feel that your music takes on extra depth when you are depressed? I’ve heard a few bipolar musicians say that. Just wondering if you feel that’s the case also. Thanks for reading – Vivien


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