You don't have to be bipolar to be a genius – but it helps

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Study reveals that high-achievers are far more likely to be manic depressives

Scientists have for the first time found powerful evidence that genius may be linked with madness.

Speculation that the two may be related dates back millennia, and can be found in the writings of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. Aristotle once claimed that "there is no great genius without a mixture of madness", but the scientific evidence for an association has been weak – until now.

A study of more than 700,000 adults showed that those who scored top grades at school were four times more likely to develop bipolar disorder than those with average grades.

The link was strongest among those who studied music or literature, the two disciplines in which genius and madness are most often linked in historical records. The study was conducted by researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, with colleagues from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, affects about 1 per cent of the population and is characterised by swings in mood from elation (mania) to depression. During the manic phase there can be feelings of inflated self-esteem, verging on grandiosity, racing thoughts, restlessness and insomnia.

The 19th-century author Edgar Allen Poe, who is thought to have suffered from manic depression, once wrote: "Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence..."

In recent years psychoanalysts, psychiatrists and psychologists have argued that genius and madness are linked to underlying degenerative neurological disorders. The problem has been that both genius and severe mental illness are rare, and high intelligence or achievement is subjectively defined. Claims about the link have been based on historical studies of creative individuals which are highly selective, subject to bias and rely on retrospective assessments of their mental state.

The study, led by James MacCabe, a senior lecturer in psychiatric epidemiology at the Institute of Psychiatry, compared the final school exam grades of all Swedish pupils aged 15-16 from 1988 to 1997, with hospital records showing admissions for bipolar disorder up to age 31. The fourfold increased risk of the condition for pupils with excellent exam results remained after researchers controlled for parental education or income. The findings are published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. They suggest that mania may improve intellectual and academic performance, accounting for the link with "genius". People with mild mania are often witty and inventive, appearing to have "enhanced access to vocabulary, memory and other cognitive resources". They tend to have exaggerated emotional responses which may "facilitate their talent in art, literature or music". In a manic state individuals have "extraordinary levels of stamina and a tireless capacity for sustained concentration".

Dr MacCabe said: "We found that achieving an A-grade is associated with increased risk for bipolar disorder, particularly in humanities and, to a lesser extent, in science subjects. A-grades in Swedish and music had particularly strong associations, supporting the literature which consistently finds associations between linguistic and musical creativity and bipolar disorder."

School pupils with low exam grades also had an increased risk of developing bipolar disorder later in life. The researchers suggest there may be two distinct groups of people with the condition – high achievers, in whom mania raises their game – and low achievers, especially those with low scores in sport and handicrafts indicating poor motor skills, who may have "subtle neurodevelopmental abnormalities".

The link was stronger in men than in women, but the difference was not statistically significant, Dr MacCabe said: "Although having A-grades increases your chance of bipolar disorder in later life, we should remember that the majority of people with A-grades enjoy good mental health."

Tortured talents: Suspected sufferers

Vincent Van Gogh

Throughout his life, the artist showed signs of mental instability. Various biographies describe him as suffering from epilepsy, depression, psychotic attacks, delusions, and bipolar disorder. In December 1888, he experienced a psychotic episode in which he threatened the life of Gauguin, his fellow artist and a personal friend, and cut off a piece of his own left ear before offering it as a gift to a prostitute.

Sylvia Plath

The poet handled very painful and intense subjects such as suicide, self-loathing, shock treatment and dysfunctional relationships. Since the day she died – by thrusting her head into a gas oven – readers and scholars have tried to unlock the enigma of her suicide. Her unabridged journals lend credence to the theory that she suffered from mental illness (probably bipolar disorder).

Stephen Fry

Fry spoke about his disorder in the BBC 2 documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. "It's infuriating I know, but I do get a huge buzz out of the manic side. I rely on it to give my life a sense of adventure, and I think most of the good about me has developed as a result of my mood swings. It's tormented me all my life with the deepest of depressions, while giving me the energy and creativity that perhaps has made my career."

Sting

In a May 1996 interview with Live! magazine, Sting was quoted as saying: "During that period with The Police, I was suicidal. My first marriage and my relationship with the other members of the band was collapsing. I was manic-depressive... I was out to lunch." However, it is unclear whether he was genuinely bipolar or using the term manic depressive as a figure of speech.

Virginia Woolf

After finishing her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1913, she suffered a severe breakdown. "I married, and then my brains went up in a shower of fireworks. As an experience, madness is terrific... and not to be sniffed at, and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one, everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets as sanity does."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Sport
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families