Van Gogh painting while dealing with bipolar disorder.

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Van Gogh painting while dealing with bipolar disorder.

Is there a link between Bipolar Disorder and Creativity?

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Written by Aditi Sahu

Bipolar Disorder is an extreme mood disorder in which an individual experiences drastic mood fluctuations. To break it down for a layman, you may say it’s a never-ending rollercoaster ride where there are phases of being at the extreme high and the extreme low. There are primarily two phases that people with bipolar disorder usually report- 

  • The Manic High
  • The Depressive Low 

When a person is in a manic state, they feel hyper-energetic and super productive, so much so that they often don’t sleep or sleep for very few hours. A lot of people report becoming more creative and risk-takers during their mania. This article will discuss the creative side of people with bipolar disorder in these high and low phases.

What is the relationship between Bipolar Disorder and creativity?

Edgar Allan Poe, who was a famous American poet and writer described his mood disorders as “I am excessively slothful and wonderfully industrious by fits. I have thus rambled and dreamed away whole months, and awake, at last, to a sort of mania for composition. Then I scribble all day, and read all night, so long as the disease endures.” His poems and other literary work also hint at these feelings, where he feels joyous yet alone, something a lot of people suffering from bipolar disorder might resonate with.

Most individuals with bipolar disorder possess different levels of creativity, or rather have a knack for simply ‘creating’. However, it doesn’t imply that they could innovate solely because of their manic state, but it does imply that there is a connection between bipolarity and profound creativity, something that makes these people extraordinary. 

Another interesting story that we came across was of the most accomplished poet of his time who also won many prestigious awards for his poetry and books, Theodore Roethke. He once described his fight with bipolar disorder as, “For no reason, I started to feel very good. Suddenly I knew how to enter into the life of everything around me. I knew what it felt like to be a tree, a blade of grass, or even a rabbit. I didn’t sleep much. I just walked around with a wonderful feeling.”

Such descriptive narratives tell us that the mania fueled their creative side, and they went into a version of themselves where they were feeling unusually uplifting and energetic. The result of this is thinking beyond the boundaries, where they felt like doing so much with all the time they’ve got. But the question still remains, what is the connection between bipolar disorder and the sudden creative rush? 

Research Around Bipolar Disorder and Creativity

Let’s look at this from a different angle, till here it is clear that there is a link between being bipolar and igniting creativity. But what is creativity after all? Now you’ll find plenty of definitions on the internet that state the meaning of the word. Perhaps it means different things to different people. But I’d like to quote Steve Jobs and put his definition of creativity. In an interview with Wired, he said, “Creativity is just connecting things. If you ask creative people how they just did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. 

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It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they’re able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than others. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences.

So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with linear solutions without broader solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of human experience, the better design we will have.” Perhaps one can conclude that people with bipolar have more diverse experiences which at times transfuse into art, or lead to finding solutions to the problems they experienced. 

Perhaps there’s another interesting angle to this. Psychologists and researchers conduct experiments to study the behavioral patterns in people suffering from bipolar disorder. In one such experiment, conducted by Terrence Ketter (Professor of Psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University) where a few individuals with bipolar disorder and a few creative controls were shown 6 different drawings and were asked to rate them on the basis of how much they liked or how much they disliked them. 

Some of these images were pretty simple and some were complex and abstract sketches. While it was expected that artists most would like abstract images, the final results of this activity were quite surprising! The rate of dislike for the simple from the persons with bipolar disorder and creative controls was 700% higher than those who were not battling the disorder. 

‍What does this mean for people with Bipolar Disorder?

The negative emotion towards the simple is what ignites the fire for creativity in people of both categories: the one with creative instincts and no mood disorders, as well as for people with mood disorders and relatively less creativity. 

To sum it up, we may say that creativity in people with bipolar disorder might be caused by 

  • negative emotions (experiences)
  • heightened emotions
  • high levels of dopamine during the manic phase.
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Does Medication for Bipolar Disorder Reduce Creativity?

One of the major concerns when discussing the relationship between bipolar disorder and creativity is how the individuals who are battling the disorder perceive it. In many cases, individuals would associate the manic or hypomanic episodes they face with sudden bursts of creativity. 

While this is not an accurate relationship, such misconceptions exist and have cascading effects on a person’s recovery journey. A person battling bipolar disorder may view any mood stabilizers or prescribed medication as a hindrance to their creativity. This may cause them to stop taking the medication or consume it irregularly, increasing their risk of relapsing.

This is where the role of psychoeducation, psychotherapy, and clinical psychologists becomes important. Psychotherapeutic approaches like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) help individuals identify such irrational thought patterns (conflating the manic phase with bursts of creativity) and guide them toward developing healthier thought patterns. 

Further, any conversation about the relationship between bipolar disorder and creativity is secondary to the seriousness of the disorder itself. However, it is important to note that a person can remain fully creatively functional while battling the disorder and seeking treatment.

The key is to seek help early and find a mental health professional who is tuned to your needs. Individuals with bipolar disorder can lead a functional and happy life with the right treatment!

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