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Creativity Higher with Bipolar?

Research and historical studies show there are high rates of bipolar disorder among people in the arts, including visual artists, musicians, poets and writers.

“We don’t know why this is the case, but there may be something about the gene for creativity that runs not only in those types of professions but in bipolar as well,” said Dr. Lori Altshuler of the UCLA Mood Disorders Research Program.

From the article: Bipolar Explorer, by Hilary MacGregor – which also quotes former entertainment lawyer Terri Cheney about her book Manic: A Memoir – the source of the image here.

In her Psych Central article The Link Between Bipolar Disorder and Creativity, Jane Collingwood notes an Oregon State University study that “looked at the occupational status of a large group of typical patients and found that ‘those with bipolar illness appear to be disproportionately concentrated in the most creative occupational category.’ They also found that the likelihood of ‘engaging in creative activities on the job’ is significantly higher for bipolar than nonbipolar workers.”

Brain physiology?

In the same article, Collingwood writes that Katherine P. Rankin, Ph.D. and colleagues at the University of California-San Francisco comment that bipolar patients can show unusual brain anatomy, specifically “diminished frontal regulation of subcortical affective systems involving the amygdala and striatum, which may increase their affective instability as well as their compulsiveness.”

That idea of “diminished frontal regulation” reminds me of research on high sensitivity or “sensory processing sensitivity” and the finding that brains of creative people appear to be more open to incoming stimuli from the surrounding environment.

See my earlier post Highly Sensitive and Creative: Latent Inhibition.

Cultural concepts of mood disorder

In his Psych Central article At The Mercy Of Our Moods, Tom Wootton notes that “At the mercy of her moods” was “a very 19th century expression” but is still an undercurrent in both popular and professional attitudes about mental health.

“In the 20th century, the expressions were also applied to artists. The implication in all cases remained that the person was somehow taken over; that mood was stronger than their ability to handle it. It was someone of a sensitive, delicate, and susceptible personality who was prone to these episodes, illnesses, or disorders. The literature about artists in the 19th and 20th century is replete with these concepts.”

But Wootton declares that based on his experience, “and that of many others…intensity has much less to do with it than understanding and training. When we seek understanding instead of just trying to make it go away, we find that we can separate the experience of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual intensity from our reactions.

“We can function fully during our most intense experiences because we have chosen to understand them. The more we experience such freedom, the less we are at the mercy of our moods.”

Tom Wootton is author of Bipolar In Order: Looking At Depression, Mania, Hallucination, and Delusion From The Other Side.

Traditional diagnosis and medication not necessarily the best or only path

In her article Giftedness, sensitivity and psychiatric drugs: why do we take them and why do we quit?, writer Cat Robson recalls, “When I was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder I felt relieved. I thought I finally had an explanation for all the difficult relationships, mistakes and trauma in my life. And there were pills that would fix it all!

“I trusted the medical professionals who interpreted my creative energy as mania and my mental energy as ‘racing thoughts,’ because they must know best.

“Unaware of high sensitivity and the complex dynamics of giftedness and creativity, I was very self-critical and ashamed of myself…The bipolar diagnosis felt like a huge ‘pass.’ I had a ‘disease’ and it wasn’t my responsibility.

“It’s challenging and often lonely to live in this world with a creative, sensitive brain. But it’s not a disease. I take responsibility for learning as much as possible about living a healthy, meaningful life as a gifted HSP in an often unsupportive world. Thankfully, there is much more information available to us now than in the past, and a growing community of people with similar challenges and gifts.”

Creating from our healthy self

Collingwood also notes in her article, “Individuals with bipolar disorder often report that they are at their most creative and productive when feeling most healthy. For example, the poet Sylvia Plath, who is widely believed to have had bipolar disorder, said that when she was writing she was accessing the healthiest part of herself. What might she have written had she not killed herself at age 30?”

Writer, educator and performer Victoria Maxwell is author of Crazy for Life – a one-woman show of her “roller-coaster ride with bi-polar disorder.”

Asked in an interview for Stable Moods about whether there is anything positive in her experience, Maxwell replied: “As I have gotten better at managing my illness, I can more productively harness the creative energy that comes somewhat from the illness.

“And now with better management skills, I don’t burn bridges with that creative energy. The work I produce is of better quality and the creative energy is more sustainable.”

[Photo of Maxwell from bio on her site]

Also see her Psychology Today blog Crazy for Life: Escapades of a bipolar princess.

For more quotes, books, links to articles etc on all this, see my Depression and Creativity site.

Creativity Higher with Bipolar?

Douglas Eby

Douglas EbyDouglas Eby, MA/Psychology, is a writer and researcher on psychology and personal development related to creativity; creator of the , and author of books including [link to book site with excerpts.]
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APA Reference
Eby, D. (2010). Creativity Higher with Bipolar?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 14, 2019, from


Last updated: 6 Dec 2010
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