I used to think – only half seriously — that there was a genetic link between bipolar and creativity. One element of the theory made my friends with biology training laugh out loud.
My idea was that so many people with bipolar are also very creative, and bipolar is a genetic disease. So creativity must be nature’s way of helping some people with the bipolar gene live long enough to reproduce. “Live long enough to reproduce” is what made biologists laugh, an essential principle in biology absurdly applied.
I had to discard that theory when I stopped believing that bipolar and creativity are genetic.
My crippling rapid cycling mood swings with psychotic overtones were diagnosed as bipolar in 1977. Docs didn’t know back then that 8 years of the constant trauma I had in my 20’s could cause such feelings and behavior. Plus I was creative, and my mother had bipolar. Everyone knew bipolar and creativity were genetic. What clinched the diagnosis was that my symptoms started improving when I started bipolar medicine. Of course, I got out of the traumatic situation, and started a new life in a more supportive community, at exactly the same time.
The part of my bipolar and creativity theory I still believe is that creativity is the ability to see relationships and create syntheses other people can’t – of words, sounds, shapes, colors, ideas, numbers, spatial relationships, chess boards, etc. A classical musician friend once told me she’d give anything to spend five minutes inside Mozart’s mind just to experience what he did.
Some minds work differently than most people, which leads to conflict or dissonance. People who have the creative capacity — wherever it comes from – develop their creativity to deal with the dissonance, the way a blind person with normal hearing learns to hear better than other people by paying more attention to what he hears.
How Evolution Might Produce Better Sea Turtles — Theoretically
According to evolution theory, if a few sea turtles could produce offspring that did not have to walk across a wide open beach to get to the water as soon as they’re born, the “new and improved” turtles would have a better chance to become adults, and reproduce, than the ones who cross the beach at birth.
Most of the old-fashioned turtles get eaten right after they’re born, and never reproduce. The “new” turtles would pass their advantage to their offspring. After generations, they would outbreed and replace the old ones, the theory goes.
Applying that principle to bipolar and creativity is silly science.
Real Scientists’ Ideas on Genes, Bipolar, and Creativity
The National Insitute on Mental Health (NIMH) claims todat that a genetic link to bipolar disorder has been “unequivocally demonstrated.” Then, they say what they really know, and how they know it. It sounds mighty equivocal – as silly as my faux science, and a lot more expensive.
“[The cause of] Bipolar disorder] is complex, with vulnerability being produced by the interaction of multiple genes and non-genetic factors”, their website says. They’ve stopped saying it’s caused by a single gene, or by genes alone.
NAMI has evolved just like NIMH, from “genetic brain disease” to a disease caused by multiple factors, including genetic and environmental factors.
NAMI speakers like to tell folks that brilliant minds, mental illness, and creativity are often connected. Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill had bouts of severe depression, that lots of saints and Hebrew prophets heard voices, and that Mozart, Robert Schumann, Connie Francis, and Patty Duke had bipolar. NAMI’s point is that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, and nobody’s fault – not the patient or the family. Like NIMH, they still say the connection is somewhere in the genes, but not only in the genes.
What NIMH Knows about Bipolar and Genetics: Not Much!
Though 30-some years, and millions of dollars, spent on the search for a genetic cause of bipolar disorder,has not produced a definite genetic cause or link, NIMH still says with supreme confidence that more of the same kind of research will lead to “identification of genes conferring vulnerability to bipolar disorder, andthe brain proteins they code for. [Genetic research will make it possible to develop better diagnostic procedures, treatments, and preventive interventions targeted at the underlying illness process.”
But so far, they’ve just found a few genes that produce a few proteins that a few people with bipolar seem to have too much or too little of.
They assume finding enough of these protein-producing genes will help them figure out how vulnerable to bipolar individuals are. They assume more knowledge of bipolar genes will lead to new treatments that can be tailored specifically to the genes of individuals with bipolar.
They themselves acknowledge on their public website that these are assmptions and hypothes, hopes for where their current research might lead (if the government keeps pumping money into it).
NIMH Has Grand Assumptions and Grand Plans to Prove Them Someday
“The NIMH Bipolar Disorder Genetics Initiative, launched in 1989, continues to gather genetic material and state-of-the-art diagnostic and clinical data from families with two or more members affected by bipolar disorder,” NIMH says. “The primary goal of this initiative is to establish a national resource that makes DNA and clinical information widely available to qualified investigators in the scientific community. New genetic analytic methods and technologies like gene chips offer great potential for identifying specific gene sites responsible for vulnerability [to bipolar disorder].”
They say sophisticated brain imaging technology is helping scientists learn what goes wrong in the brain to produce mental illness. NIMH researchers are using advanced imaging techniques to examine brain function and structure in people with bipolar disorder.
“Researchers hypothesize that abnormalities in the structure and/or function of certain brain circuits could underlie bipolar and other mood disorders. Better understanding of the neural circuits involved in regulating mood states will influence the development of better diagnostic tools and treatments,” NIMH says.
“An important area of imaging research focuses on identifying and characterizing neural circuits – networks of interconnected nerve cells in the brain, interactions among which form the basis for normal and abnormal function,” the website says.
Critics of This Science are More Persuasive
For 15 years in the empowerment and wellness movements, I’ve listened to disgruntled ex-patients with advanced degrees in science – Dan Fisher, MD, Ph,D, Patricia Deegan, Ph.D., Corinna West, MS, and others — say there is no evidence of a genetic link, chemical imbalalnce, or brain lesion that causes mental illness.
Until I read Robert Whitaker in 2011, I never looked behind the arguments of either side. I assumed an English major/journalist like me could not possibly understand the complicated science these advocates for and against the genetic chemical imbalance theory were looking at.
Whitaker, a journalist like me, and not a disgruntled ex-patient or family member, reveiewed 60 years of scientific studies that claimed to prove a chemical brain disorder, and reported that those studies don’t prove what they sa they do.
NIMH’s genetic science of bipolar and cretivity sounds to me like my old diagnosis: “I saw a robin. It started to rain. Therefore, robins cause rain.”
If I’m missing something, please notify me at once. I don’t want to disrespect or misrepresent thousands of scientists who are spending millions of dollars a year.