New Evidence Challenges Bipolar-Creativity Link

August 8, 2012 Alistair McHarg

For decades, academics from various disciplines have sought to identify a quantifiable link between manic depression (bipolar disorder) and artistic creativity. Admittedly it is not possible to do a comprehensive work-up of Beethoven, for example, and consequently a diagnosis of bipolar disorder based on the second-hand descriptions of bill collectors, cleaning ladies, and piano-tuners would seem like reaching – at best – and twaddle, at worst.

However, the idea’s tremendous appeal has caused it to persist despite overwhelming improbability. Perhaps this is because true artistic genius is so difficult for squares and apple-pie eaters to understand that the only plausible explanations are divine inspiration or, something equally incomprehensible, madness.

Since artists are almost universally disliked, it may also be a convenient way for Jim & Joanie Lunchbucket to belittle their accomplishments. Extrapolating a bit further, it might support the idea that art itself is an essentially pointless exercise since it is frequently the product of people so far short of a full deck that a game of solitaire would be a love song to futility.

One of the poster boys for this frothy bit of whimsy dressed up for Halloween in a scientist’s lab coat is none other than the mad-as-a-March-hare Dutchman, Vincent Van Gogh. (Please note the correct pronunciation of this poor man’s last name, Ggggogggh.) Van Gogh was not merely mentally ill, oh no, he was barking mad, marzipan umbrella stand banana plan mad. Despite achieving absolutely zero acclaim and popularity in his lifetime, his work has gone on to enjoy universal acceptance. Today Van Gogh’s paintings are loved, cherished and highly prized worldwide.

The tragic details of Van Gogh’s lonely life are well known, and they would seem to support the case for a tight link between bipolar disorder and artistic creativity. That is why those who favor the theory were appalled when executives at the Rijksmuseum announced that they had unearthed evidence proving beyond any doubt that Vincent Van Gogh had a twin brother, Gogh – “GoGo” to his close associates. Reginald Smythe Throckmorton Anchovy Frampton Smythe, OBE, Dean of Fine Arts at Basingstoke University on Trent, takes up the story.

“The most amazing thing about the discovery is that Gogh Van Gogh was also a painter, a shockingly bad one. When I say bad I do not mean to imply that he was not as good as his brother, no, this poor chap wasn’t even as good as my brother, and he’s a green grocer. He was every bit as loony as Vincent, but without anything even resembling a spark of creativity.

“They’ve amassed most of his work and for the most part it was done for calendars used in petrol stations. Appalling stuff. Dogs playing poker, seems as if the boxers are always cheating – passing cards to one another with their feet. Those really dreadful sad clowns with massive wet eyes and flowerpots on their heads. We think of him as the Thomas Kinkade of his day.”

I’ll just say this, his work is such a complete disgrace that it calls into question the value of art itself; one assumes Vincent kept him a secret because any association would have ruined his credibility as a mad genius.”

APA Reference
McHarg, A. (2012, August 8). New Evidence Challenges Bipolar-Creativity Link, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 24 from

Author: Alistair McHarg

SylviAnn Murray
August, 17 2013 at 8:47 pm

I am a creative Artist & Poet plus Bipolar 1. I was an artist/poet a couple of years (age 14) before I had any signs of Bipolar at 17. Also I have stated many times that I need to be stable to create Art. If I start feeling manic (usually after quitting meds) then Art stops and I become too speeded up and chaotic to do anything creative.
I am interested to see what this means to others.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Alistair McHarg
August, 18 2013 at 5:13 am

Hi SylviAnn: Thanks for writing. I usually get a lot of push-back on this point, it is nice to hear from an artist honest enough to admit that the "creativity" of mania is chaotic - and useless. Hope to hear from you again. A

Shawn Maxam
August, 12 2012 at 4:21 am

I think this is a case of correlation being mistaken for causation Alistair.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Alistair McHarg
August, 12 2012 at 5:01 am

Hello Shawn: Thanks for visiting - and especially for writing. - I think you are exactly correct. Attributes may coexist without a causal relationship. For example, the % of redheaded Presidents vastly exceeds the % of redheads in the population - but this does not mean that - if I have red hair - I have a better than average chance of becoming President. Cheers, Alistair

Victoria Maxwell
August, 11 2012 at 7:40 am

I'm interested in your point. I think the idea that creativity is linked to mental illness can be a dangerous one - it romanticizes it.
I think it's a really good point you bring up about maybe there is no connection. But I'm wondering what the new evidence is that you refer to in your title? I don't see it mentioned anywhere except as your observation.
And what do you think about the many studies and research that you can find on Google Scholar that does show the connection? What did you think of the studies that I have cited?
I am not saying and don't believe that the studies are saying that you must have a menttal illness in order to be creative or that even mental illness causes creativity. Many great creatives are perfectly 'non-insane' ;)
But the fluidity of mood and thinking that accompanies some phases of mental illness serves creativity. I think you've brought up a great point and maybe it's more about that fact that too many people idealize the concept of madness and artistic ability - which isn't good. But unless I am missing new studies and research - there is a connection. If you have some new info I am all ears - or as in the case of Van Gogh - all ear. Thanks Victoria

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Alistair McHarg
August, 12 2012 at 5:11 am

Hi Victoria: I appreciate your interest. It's not that I'm unaware of the research, I have been following advocates of this theory for over 20 years. It's that I don't believe the theory or agree with it. Worse. I believe it perpetuates naive and simplistic mythology which causes tremendous harm and even death. Many self-styled artistic Bipolars refuse to take medicine because they rely on their manic highs for creative inspiration. - The lucky ones ruin their lives; the unlucky one take their lives. Alistair -- To quote the great Taz Mopula, "If you need mania to be creative, well, maybe creativity isn't for you."

Victoria Maxwell
August, 10 2012 at 8:47 am

Okay - I'm assuming that you're having some fun. 'Cause you do know there IS actual research done to show there IS a connection between BD and creativity, right? ie: (this studies living folks like you and me, so no dead people were abused in the study). Or see this one: Nice to have found your blog. Cheers, Victoria
Full disclosure: I am a creative artist who is hopefully not universally disliked maybe only within our milky way. Oh yeah and I happen to have BD too. :)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Alistair McHarg
August, 10 2012 at 10:50 am

Hello Victoria! Thanks for visiting my mental health humor blog - Funny In The Head - and thanks so much for writing. I too am bipolar and know more about this subject than I would like to. - Yes, there has been a great deal of research "done to show there is a connection" and it is wrong - there is no connection. (William Faulkner - brilliant writer - was an alcoholic --- this does not mean that being an alcoholic makes you a brilliant writer.) The presumed link between mania and artistic creativity is one of those sexy myths that artistic people enjoy - sadly for them - it simply does not hold up under scrutiny. Sorry. I am sure you are a wonderful artist and would be with or without your Bipolar disorder. Alistair

August, 8 2012 at 6:24 pm

Very true,it certainly has left me wondering though, and your right it shouldn't be used as an excuse for bad behavior. It's awesome that you got to talk to her and discuss her book.Looking forward to your next post.

August, 8 2012 at 2:05 pm

Hi Alistair! I think we all have a lot of that mad as a hatter creativity, it just comes out in weird ways. As for Gogh Van Gogh he pretty much supports my weird way idea. An aside, have you read Kay Redfield Jameson's book "Touched with Fire"? She makes a pretty good case for bipolar and creativity going together. Best wishes,Cindyaka.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Alistair McHarg
August, 8 2012 at 4:36 pm

Hi Cindy: Thanks for writing. - Way back when I had finished Invisible Driving - my bipolar memoir - and was trying to find a literary agent/publisher - I contacted Ms. Jamison thinking she might be interested and even helpful. (This was long before she wrote her bipolar memoir - An Unquiet Mind). I had read and enjoyed Touched With Fire, especially all the quotes from bipolar artists. We talked about it at some length. I like the way she demonstrates the genetic component of the illness, she has some amazing family histories. But her argument that there is a link between manic depression and artistic genius is a castle in the sand, a fun theory that is unproven. You can't diagnose somebody that has been dead for centuries. Naturally the myth is appealing, especially to "doomed, artsy types" who are looking for ways to legitimize irresponsible behavior. I used to subscribe to this silliness myself. Frankly, at this point I believe that perpetuating this mythology is irresponsible and dangerous. There is no short-cut to great art.

Leave a reply