Successful artists are not more likely to have schizophrenia but they have epic rates of depression and bipolar disorder.
Via Jonah Lehrer’s wonderful new book Imagine: How Creativity Works:
Andreasen found that 80 percent of the writers met the formal diagnostic criteria for some type of depression. These successful artists weren’t crazy— they were just exceedingly sad.
“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.”
…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.
Join 25K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.