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The Continuing Adventures of the Mad Musician and the Bipolar Genius

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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For those interested in the continued rumors about bipolar geniuses and mad musicians, here's the latest installment of my campaign against those popular myths.

This article appeared in the May/June issue of The National Psychologist , the 19 year-old newspaper for independent psychology practitioners that prints what's really going on in the trenches, as opposed to the "party line" of the American Psychological Association. It is reprinted here with their permission.

Great talent always comes at a great price. To be a genius means to suffer—if not the chronic paralysis of depression, then surely the emotional whiplash of bipolar disorder. The exquisite sensitivity of creative artists is hard-wired with their pathology; moreover, their willingness to brave the treacherous rapids of the unconscious for inspiration makes them even more vulnerable to psychotic collapse. This is the heart of the "mad genius" myth that has been integral to Western culture for centuries.

It is also hogwash.

The fact is that, despite the efforts of numerous investigators and decades of confident pronouncements by a few, there's still no concrete, empirical proof that highly creative people are any more likely to be mood-disordered than any other group. What we have instead, passing for "evidence," are such items as hand-made lists of allegedly bipolar artists—all of them much too dead to protest—unverifiable experimental variables like "anger at mother," and histrionic quotations about artistic despair from poets who are famously florid about everything.

A careful look at the so-called "landmark" studies in the field—the work by psychiatrists Nancy Andreasen and Arnold Ludwig, and psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison—reveals gaping holes in their design, methodologies, and conclusions. Yet these studies continue to be passed along by other professionals, and often appear in psychology textbooks, where they train budding clinicians to expect their most talented clients to be chronically wobbling on the edge of sanity.

This, in turn, encourages highly creative people to believe they are only marginally in control, and that treating their "disorder" may even compromise their gifts. The kindest explanation is that everyone assumes this work has been properly vetted by somebody else, an impression strengthened by leading creativity researchers who keep citing it in their own writings without acknowledging how weak it really is.

Part of the problem is that much of the information, however spurious, is rather sexy. For example, the most prolific and vociferous "mad genius" proponent has always been Jamison, whose 1989 study is frequently cited as providing its modern "proof," and whose 1993 Touched with Fire: Manic Depression and the Artistic Temperament remains the de facto Bible for those who believe that there can be no great art without suffering. Chockablock full of passionate conjecture, this book also contains an often-cited list of 166 allegedly bipolar artists that was invented by Jamison, and based on little beside her own personal desire to put them there. But this list is so thrilling that it has been embraced by any number of otherwise-credible researchers and referenced as if it offered something profound and worthwhile. Worse yet, even some who acknowledge its lack of empirical validity can't resist quoting this exciting—if mythical—list.

Similarly, Ludwig's 1995 The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy seems to solve the problem by its title alone, and is also cited by too many people who apparently haven't read it. It turns out that this book provides yet another collection of inconclusive conclusions, although in this one, the author himself helpfully points out its shortcomings.

To be fair, Jamison's original 1989 study is rather difficult to find, since it was published in a relatively obscure local journal and takes some digging to uncover. But as it turns out, the whole field is full of research landmines. For instance, when every writer uses a different definition and measurement of creativity and madness, it precludes combining the studies together into convincing proof of anything. In fact, trying to connect one fuzzy notion to another in any kind of credible empirical fashion has taken on the proverbial dimensions of a mythic quest—one at least as epic and frustrating as getting a bipartisan health care bill out of Congress.

In May of 2009, a detailed and long-overdue analysis of Jamison's work, as well as the other hollow yet influential research in this area, appeared in the peer-reviewed APA journal, Psychology of Creativity, Aesthetics, and the Arts. My article, "Creative Mythconceptions: A closer look at the evidence for the mad genius hypothesis" (Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 62-72), is both scholarly and eminently readable, and was even called "a public service" by the late, great creativity pioneer, Colin Martindale.


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