Fiction writers are 10 times more likely to be bipolar. In poets it’s 40 times more likely.
In studies of deceased writers— based on their letters, medical records, and published biographies— and in studies of talented living writers, mental illness is prevalent. For example, fiction writers are fully ten times more likely to be bipolar than the general population, and poets are an amazing forty times more likely to struggle with the disorder. Based on statistics like these, psychologist Daniel Nettle writes, “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that most of the canon of Western culture was produced by people with a touch of madness.” Essayist Brooke Allen does Nettle one better: “The Western literary tradition, it seems, has been dominated by a sorry collection of alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, manic-depressives, sexual predators, and various unfortunate combinations of two, three, or even all of the above.”
In psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig’s massive study of mental illness and creativity, The Price of Greatness, he found an 87 percent rate of psychiatric disorders in eminent poets and a 77 percent rate in eminent fiction writers— far higher than the rates he found among high achievers in nonartistic fields such as business, science, politics, and the military. Even college students who sign up for poetry-writing seminars have more bipolar traits than college students generally. Creative writers are also at increased risk of unipolar depression and are more likely to suffer from psychoses such as schizophrenia. It is, therefore, not surprising that eminent writers are also much more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, spend time in psychiatric hospitals, and kill themselves.
Why bipolar? Research shows the highs help produce new ideas:
…bipolar disorder, an illness in which people oscillate between intense sadness and extreme euphoria, is so closely associated with creativity. Andreasen found that nearly 40 percent of the successful creative people she investigated had the disorder, a rate that’s approximately twenty times higher than it is in the general population. (More recently, the psychiatrist Hagop Akiskal found that nearly two-thirds of a sample of influential European artists were bipolar. ) The reason for this correlation, Andreasen suggests, is that the manic states lead people to erupt with new ideas as their brains combust with remote associations.
What about the lows? Obsessively thinking about things is connected to depression but it’s also correlated with creativity:
Because rumination may allow an idea to stay in one’s conscious longer and indecision may result in more time on a given task, it was expected that these two cognitive processes may predict creativity.
This rumination/perseverance connection is a double edged sword for creative people:
“Successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down,” Andreasen says. “They’ll stick with it until it’s right. And that seems to be what the mood disorders help with.” While Andreasen acknowledges the terrible burden of mental illness— she quotes Robert Lowell on depression not being a “gift of the Muse” and describes his reliance on lithium to escape the pain— she argues that, at least in its milder forms, the disorder benefits many artists due to the perseverance it makes possible. “Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering,” Andreasen says. “If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”
Surprisingly, those students diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) got significantly higher scores. White then measured levels of creative achievement in the real world, asking the students if they’d ever won prizes at juried art shows or been honored at science fairs. In every single domain, from drama to engineering, the students with ADHD had achieved more. Their attention deficit turned out to be a creative blessing.
Should we be afraid of creative people? Are they crazy psychopaths?
Quite the opposite. Psychopaths are actually more prevalent in corporate America:
…we had a unique opportunity to examine psychopathy and its correlates in a sample of 203 corporate professionals selected by their companies to participate in management development programs. The correlates included demographic and status variables, as well as in-house 360° assessments and performance ratings. The prevalence of psychopathic traits – as measured by the Psychopathy Checklist – Revised (PCL-R) and a Psychopathy Checklist: Screening Version (PCL: SV) equivalent – was higher than that found in community samples.
Join over 180,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.
This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.