Creative Genius Linked to Mental Illness

By  Jennifer Warner
WebMD Medical News Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson, MD

May 24, 2002 -- From Vincent Van Gogh to Sylvia Plath, the path from mental illness to creative genius has been well traveled by many artists and writers. Now, researchers say they are gaining new clues about the mysterious link between highly creative individuals and mental disorders, such as manic depression.

A new study shows that healthy artists are more similar in personality to people with manic depression than other healthy people in the population. Researchers presented the findings this week at the American Psychiatric Association Meeting in Philadelphia.

The National Institute on Mental Health estimates that manic depression, also called bipolar disorder, affects about 2 million Americans. The brain disorder is characterized by unusual and often dramatic shifts in a person's energy level and mood far different than the typical "ups and downs." Manic depression causes striking mood swings -- from overly "high" to sad and hopeless, and then back again, often with periods of normal mood in between. Major changes in behavior and energy go along with these changes in mood. The periods of highs and lows are called episodes of mania and depression.

"My hunch is that emotional range, having an emotional broadband, is the bipolar patient's advantage," says study author Connie Strong, a doctoral candidate at Stanford University, in a news release. "It isn't the only thing going on, but something gives people with manic depression an edge, and I think it's emotional range."

Researchers say the study is unique because it compared both healthy, creative people to similarly matched people from the general population, as well as to individuals diagnosed with a mental illness.

Using standard personality, temperament, and creativity tests, researchers analyzed four different groups: 47 healthy individuals, 48 patients with successfully treated bipolar disorder, 25 patients successfully treated for depression, and 32 healthy graduate students enrolled in creative programs such as product design, creative writing, and fine arts.

The study found people in the creative group and recovered manic depressives were more open and likely to be moody and neurotic than other healthy individuals. Researchers say these traits are part of a group of characteristics known as "negative-affective traits" that also include mild forms of depression and bipolar disorder that do not necessarily require treatment.

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