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."

VIDEO
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Sport
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain drives in the rain during the qualifying session of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai
sport
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Life & Style
The North Korean TV advert for Taedonggang beer, that became a YouTube hit
food + drinkAnd what did it take to set up a taste test back in Wiltshire?
Arts & Entertainment
filmLife for Leslie Mann's can be challenging sometimes
Voices
For music lovers: John Cusack with his vinyl collection in 'High Fidelity'
voices...but don't forget rest of the year
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit