When Mental Illness Is A Gift

Priscilla Long, wondering why schizophrenia persists across generations, points to a link between the illness and creativity:

Imagination, suggests Princeton molecular biologist Lee M. Silver, is related to the brain’s “noise” (random firings of neurons, or nerve cells), thus generating more associations. Brain scans of people with schizophrenia and their unafflicted family members show mega-amounts of random noise. Brain scans of control subjects (no schizophrenia in the family) do not.

A recent major study confirmed a high association between people in creative professions and their first-degree relatives (parents, offspring, and siblings) who have psychopathologies such as schizophrenia. Could there be inherited brain structures that produce thought patterns such as “broad associative thinking” in which contradictory images and ideas knock about together, structures that serve an artist’s work but that in some brains go too far and become the twisted thoughts of mental illness? Does selection for a more robust imagination – so very useful to us humans – keep imagination’s more dysfunctional forms from dying out?

Similar observations are made about bipolar disorder, which have played a role in the current TV trope of mental-illness-as-superpower. A reader, responding to our post on the new series Black Box, worries about romanticizing mental illness:

Having bipolar disorder, especially untreated bipolar disorder, is not a wondrous gift.

Sure, some people afflicted with it do well for themselves. Some can harness the energy and do great things with it. Most people ruin their lives with lousy careers, broken relationships, and a lot of detritus from the manic episodes, interspersed with bouts of crippling depression that make the disasters that much harder to clean up after. Or get appropriate treatment and try to live moderately normal lives.

Living with bipolar disorder is bad enough. Giving the public the perception that bipolar people can somehow transcend their daily struggles and become wildly successful because of this wonderful gift is offensive.


As someone with bipolar disorder – luckily completely controlled for years – I certainly agree that the ‘mentally ill genius’ trope is tired, and misinformed. But the thing is, it’s not totally misinformed

My own experience with mania has been that the long ramping up into a bad state with disordered thinking and behavior actually includes a period of very lucid, insightful, and hugely productive mental states that have brought out some of my best thinking and work. I still marvel at what I once accomplished in a single flight from Boston to San Francisco. (My clients were wowed by the work, too.) Those peak periods are not quite superpower-level, but there is definitely some truth in the trope. As my sister, who also has bipolar, once said: “Let’s rent a cottage for a month, go off our meds, and knock out a couple of novels.”

It’s funny because there is some truth in there. That’s what makes bipolar so dangerous: it has its upsides.