Is it true that people with mental illness, particularly mood disorders, are more creative? Or do creative people more often develop mental illness? Does the medication given for mood swings dampen creativity? Are there different types of creativity that manifest themselves during heightened, depressed and normal moods? What is creativity, anyway?
These are hotly debated questions but clear guidance is hard to come by. Small studies have been done, but since each one uses a different baseline for “creativity” it is impossible to compare them.
Danish study: one large study in Denmark took academic achievement as its proxy for creativity and looked at close family members of university professors. They found higher-than-usual rates of mental illness (bipolar and schizophrenia) among close blood relations of the professors, suggesting that genes for mental illness may run in these families.
UK study: a 2015 cohort study looked for association between testing for high IQ at age 8, compared with rates of mental illness diagnosed at age 22, and found that there did, indeed, seem to be an association between high IQ (especially verbal intelligence) in childhood and higher risk of bipolar symptoms in adulthood.
Others have found high incidences of mental illness in people actively working in artistic professions and in various kinds of entrepreneurship, but this cannot tease out how many people are successful without mental illness, or how many would have become creative professionals under other circumstances.
Lithium and creativity
Many of our patients have complained of a feeling of “flatness” when taking lithium. They feel like their creativity is stifled, or suppressed, by the lithium. We have found one small study that looked at people who were on lithium and then “suddenly” went off it. These study participants had up to 10% higher numbers of creative word associations after lithium was discontinued. However, the results were not reproduced for people who had been on relatively low doses of lithium, the dose had to be fairly high to have an effect when discontinued. Also, we cannot be sure if the abrupt discontinuation of lithium may have actually triggered a manic or hypomanic state, so that the word association effect would be due to heightened energy rather than directly by the absence of lithium.
Mood and creativity
Another study on variations in creativity through the fluctuations of mood found that in any one participant, the level of creativity was highest during the elevated mood stage (mania or hypomania), medium during normal mood, and as much as 40% lower during depressed mood states. This suggests that the effect of mood itself on creativity is greater than the effect of lithium.
The whole concept of “creativity” is still very subjective, including, for any one person, when it is active and when it is not. Some people experience the energized state as one in which there are boundless possibilities and new ideas popping up all the time. There is a constant sense of excitement, and seemingly meaningful associations may come bubbling out. However, this increase of ideas and associations may not result in useful creativity. The well-known disorganized and reckless approach to life usually takes over and nothing really comes to fruition.
For many of our patients in artistic professions stabilizing mood, through medications, or other daily disciplines like meditation or exercise doesn’t interfere with their ability to actually use their creative ideas. It is not the feeling of being “in the zone” or working deeply on an idea or vision that is affected by medication, it is only the creative associonality, or being the “life of the party” that is somewhat dampened, which may actually be helpful in getting something truly creative done.