Many people living with bipolar disorder have demonstrated themselves to be highly creative. There are numerous famous artists, actors, and musicians who have bipolar disorder. These include actress and singer Demi Lovato, actor and kickboxer Jean-Claude Van Damme, and actress Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Other famous people believed to have had bipolar disorder include painter Vincent Van Gogh, writer Virginia Woolf, and musician Kurt Cobain. So what does creativity have to do with bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a chronic mental illness that causes extreme changes in mood. Moods alternate between happy, energetic highs (mania) and sad, weary lows (depression). These mood swings may occur several times each week or just a couple of times a year.
There are three main types of bipolar disorder. These include:
- Bipolar I disorder. People with bipolar I have at least one manic episode. These manic episodes may be preceded or followed by a major depressive episode, but depression isn’t required for bipolar I disorder.
- Bipolar II disorder. People with bipolar II have one or more major depressive episodes lasting at least two weeks, as well as one or more mild hypomanic episodes lasting at least four days. In hypomanic episodes, people are still excitable, energetic, and impulsive. However, the symptoms are milder than those associated with manic episodes.
- Cyclothymic disorder. People with cyclothymic disorder, or cyclothymia, experience hypomanic and depressive episodes for two years or longer. The mood swings tend to be less severe in this form of bipolar disorder.
Though there are different types of bipolar disorder, the symptoms of hypomania, mania, and depression are similar in most people. Some common symptoms include:
- persistent feelings of extreme grief or despair
- loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable
- trouble concentrating, making decisions, and remembering things
- anxiety or irritability
- eating too much or too little
- sleeping too much or too little
- thinking or talking about death or suicide
- attempting suicide
- experiencing an overly happy or outgoing mood for a long period of time
- severe irritability
- talking quickly, rapidly transitioning different ideas during a conversation, or having racing thoughts
- inability to focus
- starting numerous new activities or projects
- feeling very fidgety
- sleeping too little or not at all
- acting impulsively and partaking in dangerous behaviors
Hypomania symptoms are the same as mania symptoms, but they differ in two ways:
- With hypomania, mood swings usually aren’t severe enough to interfere significantly with a person’s ability to carry out daily activities.
- No psychotic symptoms occur during a hypomanic episode. During a manic episode, psychotic symptoms may include delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia.
During these episodes of mania and hypomania, people often feel ambitious and inspired, which may prompt them to start a new creative endeavor.
There may now be a scientific explanation as to why many creative people have bipolar disorder. Several recent studies have showed that people who are genetically predisposed to bipolar disorder are more likely than others to show high levels of creativity, particularly in artistic fields where strong verbal skills are helpful.
In one study from 2015, researchers took the IQ of almost 2,000 8-year-old children, and then assessed them at ages 22 or 23 for manic traits. They found that high childhood IQ was linked with bipolar symptoms later in life. For this reason, the researchers believe the genetic features associated with bipolar disorder can be helpful in the sense that they also may produce beneficial traits.
Other researchers have also found a connection between genetics, bipolar disorder, and creativity. In another study in 2015, researchers analyzed the DNA of more than 86,000 people to look for genes that increase the risks of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. They also noted whether the individuals worked in or were associated with creative fields, such as dancing, acting, music, and writing. They found that creative individuals are up to 25 percent more likely than noncreative people to carry genes that are associated with bipolar and schizophrenia.
Not all people with bipolar disorder are creative, and not all creative people have bipolar disorder. However, there does appear to be a connection between the genes that lead to bipolar disorder and a person’s creativity.