Many Experts See Link between Art, Manic Depression

By Price, Joyce | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 12, 1996 | Go to article overview

Many Experts See Link between Art, Manic Depression


Price, Joyce, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The old adage that "there is no great genius without some touch of madness" may well be true.

A growing number of psychologists, psychiatrists and even neuroscientists suggest that bipolar illness, a mental disorder commonly known as manic depression, improves the ability to create art. That argument is the subject of a report in the October issue of Discover magazine.

Johns Hopkins psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, described by Discover as "a point person in the art-and-madness link," believes that many tormented artists, including John Keats, William Blake, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Michelangelo, Maxim Gorky, Emily Dickinson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe, Eugene O'Neill, Emile Zola and George Handel, were manic depressives.

Manic depression tends to be cyclical. Periods of unexplainable elation and hyperactivity irregularly alternate with deep depression and fatigue.

"Depression is sort of respectable, but mania isn't. If you're manic, you're really crazy," Mrs. Jamison told Discover.

Dr. Arnold Ludwig, a psychiatrist at the University of Kentucky, recently conducted a large study that found "creative artists," such as writers, visual artists and musicians, had "significantly more" mental illness than their counterparts in fields such as science, business, politics, architecture and sports.

Asked if he believes that many of the artists Mrs. Jamison cited had bipolar illness, Dr. Ludwig said: "I agree they may have. That observation has to be taken seriously. In the creative arts, more people have emotional disturbances. I don't dispute that."

But he stressed that his research shows that creative artists don't just have more bipolar illness than others. "They have more of everything, including anxiety, drug abuse, phobias, schizophrenia," he said.

At one time, the talents of many of the artists Mrs. Jamison puts in the bipolar ranks - Keats, Shelley, Gorky, Stevenson and O'Neill, among others - were attributed to tuberculosis, not mental illness.

Like manic depression, TB - before the advent of effective preventive medication - involved alternating periods of overactivity and lethargy. "It, too, was thought to create a mental exaltation that predisposed its victims to extraordinary insights," wrote Jo Ann C. Gutin, an anthropologist and author of the report in Discover. …

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