Bipolar disorder is a mental illness characterized by often extreme mood swings, from deep depression to mania. The depressive phases come with the usual accoutrements of depression: feeling sad or hopeless or drained, and a lack of interest in or motivation for everyday activities. During the manic phase, someone with bipolar disorder will be euphoric, but may also exhibit poor impulse control and self-destructive behavior. There is a strong genetic component to the condition, with doctors calculating it at around 71 percent hereditary. Environmental factors also play a large role in people genetically predisposed to the disease, and some kinds of brain damage or injury can produce bipolar symptoms.
A recent study underscores the connection long perceived between bipolar disorder and creativity. Called the Sylvia Plath effect, after the 20th-century writer and poet, heightened risk of mental illness is often believed to go hand in hand with creative talent, indeed, in the study, people who placed greater emphasis on creativity in their lives—in particular, those who regarded inspiration as coming primarily from within—were found to be more at risk for bipolar disorder, showing higher scores on psychological tests designed to assess the condition.
However, many experts on both psychology and writing dispute this connection, pointing out that creativity is often misunderstood by people who don’t necessarily act on their own inspiration, and creative people are not always distressed or harmed—a defining characteristic of mental illness—by the ways in which they appear to think differently from others.
In addition, the test, a questionnaire, may not be the most accurate way to measure bipolar disorder. The questionnaires often rely on either self-reporting, which can introduce various kinds of largely unconscious bias into the process, or on observation, which is inherently limited. Brain scanning techniques, which look directly at what is going on in the brain, can be more accurate when doctors know what to look for. With bipolar disorder, they are beginning to know. The scans measure blood flow, and thus brain activity, in the parts of the brain associated with regulating moods. By looking for patterns in this activity, doctors can spot bipolar disorder in action.