Are Bipolar Disorder Patients More Creative?

by James Downie | April 14, 2011

On Wednesday, the publicist of Catherine Zeta-Jones confirmed that the actress had "made the decision to check in to a mental health facility for a brief stay to treat her Bipolar II Disorder." Zeta-Jones, according to media reports, spent five days in the facility, and has already checked out, but the announcement has raised awareness about bipolar disorder, which affects around six million Americans. Many news articles have noted that bipolar disorder is more common in creative disciplines, such as music and art, but, flipping the relationship around, are bipolar disorder sufferers also more creative on average?

Yes, says a 2006 study conducted at the Stanford University School of Medicine. The authors measured creativity, using four different measures, in groups of "euthymic bipolar" and unipolar major depression patients, as well as two control groups, one made up of subjects in creative disciplines, and the other a normal control group. (The bipolar group included patients with both bipolar I and II disorders.) The study showed significant differences on only one test of four: the Barron-Welsh art scale, which "is an empirically-derived metric consisting of 86 black and white images that subjects rate "like" or "dislike", with higher scores reflecting preference for more asymmetrical and complex figures over more symmetrical and simple figures." More specifically, the only significant difference appeared in the "dislike" ratings, where both bipolar and the creative control groups (but not the unipolar depression group) scored about 90 and 88% higher respectively. (The differences in "like" ratings were not statistically significant.) Though only one of the four tests showed significant differences, the authors conclude that "our findings suggest enhanced creativity in [bipolar patients] compared to [the control]...[though] further studies are needed to determine the mechanisms of enhanced creativity."

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