Jonah Lehrer Meets Stephen Fry – The Paradoxes of Bipolar and Creativity

Last night, reading the wonderful third chapter of Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine,* I came across some material, new to me, on the links between melancholy and creativity. I’m fairly familiar with this literature, but not the the last couple years’ worth, and in that time the stack has grown. Experimental work by researchers like Joe Forgas and Modupe Akinola, which shows that melancholy can sharpen  cognition, now fattens the pile of studies pioneered by researchers such as Nancy Andreasen.

Andreasen, for instance,  found that prominent British novelists and poets were eight times as likely as the general population to suffer from major depression. In another paper she

 found that nearly 40 percent of the successful creative people she investigated had the disorder, a rate that’s approximately twenty times higher than it is in the general population. (More recently, the psychiatrist Hagop Akiskal found that nearly two-thirds of a sample of influential European artists were bipolar. )

But why? In the past, Andreasen has offered that the energy and confidence that mania produces can help someone start and finish an ambitious work of art — damned handy, since every ambitious work at times (usually many times) seems impossible. Now she adds that the ideas one comes up with during such phases tend to be quite original, as the manic person, in a set of long-distance synaptic leaps that Lehrer explains earlier, draws associations that lie beyond the reach of more ordinary modes of thought. (NB: Not everyone with bipolar gets these manic “highs.”)** The ideas they come up with, in short, can be a bit crazy. If they spit them out then and published them, they’d likely be of little worth. But, as Lehrer explains,

then the mania ebbs. The extravagant high descends into a profound low. While this volatility is horribly painful, it can also enable creativity, since the exuberant ideas of the manic period are refined during the depression.

In other words, the emotional extremes of the illness reflect the extremes of the creative process: there is the ecstatic generation phase, full of divergent thoughts, and the attentive editing phase, in which all those ideas are made to converge. This doesn’t take away, of course, from the agony of the mental illness, and it doesn’t mean that people can create only when they’re horribly sad or manic. But it does begin to explain the significant correlations that have been repeatedly observed between depressive syndromes and artistic achievement.

A new idea is borne during mania, refined when it subsides. If you read only that, you can mistakenly think bipolar disorder is a good thing to have, to let run amok. Lehrer is quick to note that but fairly quickly to move on — he’s writing a book about creativity, not depression.

But today, as I was pondering these dynamics, the Internet’s own synaptic genius brought me another exploration of just these paradoxes, one that lingers longer on the downside, in the form of a wonderful documentary that Stephen Fry and the BBC made a few years ago. Fry made the two-part film after he had  a near-fatal manic-depressive collapse. At one level this beautifully produced program is yet another wonderful BBC exploration of a complex subject — a look from many angles unified by  the sensibility and presence of a smart, amiable, literate guide. But here thge power of Fry’s own story and insight, and the extremely high stakes at hand — the highest possible — raises it another notch. Fine work by one of Britain’s finest. I’m not sure we have his match here in the U.S. — a comic entertainer who is also a public intellectual and a searingly honest man.

Hat-tip to the glorious Open Culture for bringing this film to my attention.


*I don’t think it so wonderful now that the book has been fact-checked and found to be so riddled with plagiarism, falsification, fabrication, and sleight-hand that it had to be pulled from circulation. (added 30 June, 2013).

**Added 4/10/12, 6:13 a.m. EDT. Thanks to a friend for a prod on this. Fry addresses it in the film, but I forgot to include that definitional wrinkle in my post the first time through.

Please also see my follow-up: Madness Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be: A Corrective

3 responses

  1. In evolutionary terms, there seems no reason to expect that any conditions as common as Major Depression or Bipolar Disorder lack advantages: how would they have become so common otherwise?  If one can find a way to manage and survive these disorders, they may well offer significant strengths.  We need not limit such ideas to the experience of untreated cases and the experience of suffering – for example, recent evidence suggests that Dyslexia is linked with perceptual advantages like improved peripheral vision.  Perhaps depressive disorders are also linked to cognitive or perceptual strengths.  These conditions have been arbitrarily, albeit understandably, framed entirely as diseases, but in light of our really rather limited understanding of the brain, I see no reason to take this framework as the complete and final word here. We’ll see.

  2. “In evolutionary terms, there seems no reason to expect that
    any conditions as common as Major Depression or Bipolar Disorder lack

    There is every bit as good a reason to expect these conditions lack the same advantages as any other debilitating disease, especially those with a suspected or confirmed genetic basis.  Just because a malady is common, there is no reason whatsoever to imagine that adding a tick in its check box as “evolutionarily beneficial” is an appropriate response. 

    The vast majority of common genetic tendencies to disease have absolutely no identifiable benefit at all.  In the depressed phase, there is a distinct disadvantage to the suicidal individual, especially if they are ‘successful’.  Common occurrence is unfortunate, but also both expected and irrelevant in today’s world of medicine.

    • Jonah and I visited this question in a couple of the “related” stories linked above. Jonah in “Depression’s Upside,” a NY Times Magazine story at

      I took another read on it in “Does depression have an upside? It’s complicated”, at

      V short v: Jonah had written about the hypothesis that depression creates a rumination that is advantageous. I offered that depression itself is not adaptive, but is the occasional downside of a broader sensitivity to experience that is adaptive.  

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