Does a bipolar state of mind encourage creative genius?

Science writer Jonah Lehrer is seen at the "You and Your Irrational Brain" panel discussion in Long Island City in 2008.
(Thos Robinson/Getty Images)

Jonah Lehrer is the Los Angeles guy who writes about brains, and he has them aplenty too. He wonders how our noggins make us individually distinct, and yet how the basic factory model means that so many of our brains are wired the same.

In books such as “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” Lehrer metaphorically pokes at our gray matter, and in his latest, “Imagine, How Creativity Works,” considers the neuroscience of the divine spark.

For my “Patt Morrison Asks” column, I questioned him about the trope that depression can stimulate creativity, which invariably leads to the hypothetical, “If we’d been able to prescribe antidepressants for the dispirited geniuses of the past, would we be deprived of their music and their art?”

Here’s what Lehrer says:

“There’s a popular cliché that maybe craziness and creativity are allied, [that] if you’re schizophrenic, you’re more likely to be a genius inventor. That’s actually not the case. Schizophrenia, there’s no correlation with creativity. Instead, it’s really about depression and particularly bipolar depression. The leading hypothesis grows out of research showing states of being unhappy, being gloomy — when you’re sad you’re actually better able to focus.

“So people who are sad actually produce better artwork in the lab, better collages. Some studies indicate successful people are something like 25 times more likely to suffer from bipolar depression; it captures the natural swings of the creative process. Sometimes you want to be manic and have tons of new ideas, but then you also seem to benefit from a slightly sad, more melancholy phase.”

This notion only goes so far — which is to say, not into the deepest heart of depression’s darkness.

“Of course this doesn’t speak to people who suffer severely. It’s what [Thomas] Wolfe suffered from, [and poet] Robert Lowell. [Lowell] took lithium to escape it, even though he believed [depression] played a role in his creativity. This is beginning to explain why it’s so prevalent among creators.”

Does that then mean Prozac and other Rxes rob the world of great art – even as it benefited the artists?

“It’s a really complicated question. One would never advocate depression to write a better novel. It’s a grueling illness, and if you really are depressed you’re not going to be able to create anyway.”

Lehrer also looks at other brain disorders and imbalances, such as ADHD. “Some studies [are] showing that people who suffer from ADHD seem to be more likely to be successful real-world creators as well. Even people who are not diagnosed with ADHD but are just very distractable — if you’re distracted, you’re always grabbing information from unexpected places and making connections. Most of those connections are a waste of time, but every once in a while they’ll lead you somewhere interesting.”

But don’t go off those meds thinking you’re suppressing your inner Shakespeare.


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