Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Kay Redfield Jamison on Madness and Creativity

kay redfield jamison.jpgI found the following article at “The Daily Gazette” about Jamison’s seminar on “Madness, Moods, and Creative Achievement” at the Science Center 101 back in 2005. It serves as a good summary of her discussion at Johns Hopkins’s Mood Disorders Symposium, as well. To get to the original article, click here.



Science Center 101 was packed with students and faculty on Thursday afternoon to listen to noted researcher Kay Redfield Jamison speak on “Madness, Moods, and Creative Achievement.” Jamison is a Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and the co-director of the Mood Disorders Center at the Hopkins School of Medicine, but she is best known for her writings. She revealed her own struggle with manic depression in her 1995 memoir “An Unquiet Mind,” a bestseller that is now being turned into a movie.

The topic of Thursday’s lecture came from Jamison’s book “Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament,” and explored the relationship between madness and imagination that has been noted since pre-Grecian times. It is a difficult topic, began Jamison, because while these are “devastating illnesses that you don’t want to romanticize, you also don’t want not to study a potential link with so many intellectual and clinical implications.”


Jamison spoke at length about the techniques used to make “post mortem diagnoses” of disturbed artistic and literary geniuses. Bipolar and manic-depressive individuals generally have their first episode in adolescence or their early twenties; both are cyclic disorders for which interepisode functioning is normal, but the episodes will become progressively more relentless unless treated. An average manic episode lasts from one to three months, and untreated bipolar episodes generally run from nine months to a year.

Researchers can look at the productivity patterns of writers and artists for clues about their mental health. A fairly continuous pattern may suggest mental stability, whereas those with mood disorders tend to display disruptive and erratic patterns. As an example, Jamison suggested the German composer Schumann, whose hypomanic years were his most productive and who spent the last years of his life in a depressive and unproductive period.


Jamison also spent some time on interesting correlations between mental instability and the time of year. Manic episodes generally appear in late summer and early fall, and depressive episodes in the spring and late fall. In a reversal of conventional wisdom, May and June are the most common months for suicide.

Since bipolar disorder and manic-depressive illness are both linked strongly to genetics, another good way to trace them are through assembling family pedigrees. Many of us know that Ernest Hemingway committed suicide, but who would have guessed that so did his brother, his sister, his father, and one of his grandchildren?

While only 1% of the general population will ever commit suicide, Jamison presented the sobering statistic that according to some studies, up to 18% of poets will.


She ran through many different statistics showing a clear correlation between mental illness and creativity before turning to the question of what it all meant. Is there correlation but not causation? Are depressed people more drawn to creative careers? Does creative work cause mood disorders? Or, as Jamison believes, can mood disorders facilitate even greater creativity in individuals who are already creative?

Mania causes acute changes in mood and thinking and long-term changes in observing and reflecting on one’s environment; it is associated with expansive, original, and over-inclusive thought; elevated mood has a profound effect on word association. “If this relationship exists,” asked Jamison, “is there a risk of losing it if you treat somebody? Artists and writers are legitimately concerned about these things.”


Jamison personally believes that clinicians have an obligation to be informed about the diseases they treat, and to recognize the importance of medication even if the individual rejects it. Some individuals can become addicted to mania-“as a drug, hypomania leaves cocaine in the dust”-romanticizing their illness and attempting to recapture their highs by any means possible.

But the risks of refusing medication are higher than any creative loss that may occur, stressed Jamison, who pointed to a statistic showing that patients on lithium are nine times less likely to commit suicide. In fact, even the loss of one’s creativity should not be a great worry; two-thirds of patients report no change in intellectual ability and three-fourths no decline in productivity.


Jamison ended her talk on a hopeful note, telling the audience that today’s treatments offer great hope for bipolar and manic-depressive individuals to triumph over their illness, and she is a living example.

Click here to subscribe to Beyond Blue and click here to follow Therese on Twitter and click here to join Group Beyond Blue, a depression support group. Now stop clicking.

  • Kevin

    Artistic folks tend to be inclined to romanticize their suffering. It’s a common tactic used to ‘transcend’ those ‘ordinary people’ as Walker Percy loved to repeatedly remind fellow writers.
    KRJ is right. There isn’t any real evidence that being ‘imbalanced’ from either allopathic medicine or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspectives is good for one’s health much less their work–including artists.
    Um, maybe balance is good….something we aim for… do we get so confused that we start raising ‘imbalance’ to be hip (along with irony, cynicism, bitterness, jadedness, etc….the things we do for ‘street cred’) like raising the host with ringing bells and incense floating as transubstantiation happens.
    Holy Mother of God, please help our sorry arses…..

  • Lori

    Very good information. I love her books.
    I write music, and paint. Because I see things and feel things, intensely- I guess, and I want to take what I feel, and put it in others.
    Thats what I have to try and express or I would explode.
    Thank God for my guitar. Thats how I process my thoughts, feelings, world.

  • Nobody Special

    The trouble is that balance needs to be had on more levels than that, and the balance between the psychiatrist’s opinion of what is good for the patient and the PATIENT’S opinion about the same question needs to be slanted toward the latter.
    When you’re part of the (by the doctor’s own estimates) one third who DO experience a decline in intellectual ability and/or the one fourth who experience a decline in productivity (and don’t think I’m not wondering about the _at least_ 8.3% of the population who apparently have no decline in productivity at all despite watching their IQs drop measurably), the choice can be a lot harder than that.
    What do you gain from the meds? What do you lose? How do you value those two sets?
    Your psychiatrist sees his role as eliminating or minimizing the symptoms of your illness. Any course of action which achieves that result, whatever the collateral damage, is going to be something he’ll see as a success.
    He doesn’t have to live your life. You do.
    I’m not here to romanticize mental illness. It’s not romantic. And I’m not here to demonize drug therapy. It does help a lot of people. To those who benefit from its help and freely choose to accept whatever consequences their lives may take from side effects, I can say sincerely that I’m glad for you.
    But substituting a doctor’s judgment for a patient’s sense of self-preservation is a very slippery and dangerous slope indeed.
    Dr. Jamison seems remarkably flip about the quarter of her patients who risk losing their ability to hold down a job, and the third who risk losing their ability to learn and grow. Were I a member of either group, I would not regard the treatment as a net-positive, regardless of what happened to the symptoms for which I’d requested treatment initially. And her attitude is, from what I’ve seen, too typical among psychiatrists.
    That isn’t balance.

  • Sarah

    I am a musician, artist, poet, and I’m writing a book as we speak (who knows where that will take me…) But I am a college student, so I am still young and I am deadly afraid of losing my intellectual capacity and my fast reasoning skills, and my argumentative genius…. I was diagnosed with Bipolar a few years back, but denied treatment and medication. I have stayed self medicating with aderol and caffiene or alochol, really anything that did the trick, but as it says mania is seductive, it’s hard not to love it. People envied my drive and pursuit for philosophical studies, and my ability to stay focused for weeks without realizing the time past. And to most people this is insane, but I don’t want to lose “me” just so I can fulfill some conventional physician checklist of “healthy”….. it’s not worth it to me. I just had a manic episode, and though I had about a few months of GREAT productivity, Great dillegnce, etc, it eventually got too much and my logic drove me insane…. I could not stop thinking, I was sweating and hot, and whatnot, so they put me on lithium and lamictal. I can’t find anywhere online where it says what I am expected to experience. I’m on day 9, and I don’t even have the intelligence to ascertain what i am “feeling”, if anything. My drive is nonexistent, I’m tired and always hungry, lazy, indifferent, and I don’t know if this is me. I don’t like this me though, is this the real me?
    Is it true that 1/3 of people lose their intellectual abilities they had previously? And when can I expect to know if I am in that percentage??
    Please write back!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Paula

    As with anything that alters how your brain “feels” to you, it becomes difficult to recognize who you are. I’ve decided that I am really the “group of behaviors” that I like or enjoy and not the others. Until recently, I took lithuim (I developed nystagmus) and lamictal. It took the edge off of the mania and I didn’t experience deep depressions. I’ve seen from reading various descriptions of how it “feels” to be on lithium and lamictal that it is unfortunately different for each of us. Now I am using depakote and risperidal. Without the lithium and lamictal, I have periods where I “vibrate”. My muscles are so taught, that they become sore and I become anxious. As I travel through my own wonderland, I have glimpses of reality. I recognize paranoia for itself and shake it loose only to have it rise again in a mimic of Sisyphus’ boulder. The breakthroughs I have creatively only tarnish later when I revisit them when I am not manic.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment eazyeazy

    7 years 2 suicide attempts one successful middle aged dead suicide lithium rising depakote seroquel nightmare forks in my cheek eating pie black out low speed high rise death star and I know heartsided how stupid I have become soft focus brain but I has never more than quic not fleet and so decline to normal seems so normal. Lithicide is better than the alt only because the edge is so sharp right before you fall. The real bleeding starts when the plug is pulled, the meds drain out and the sound of your brainwater winding up thunders seas over all reason. Everything is you and you alone. Then you are alone blackish life leaking on the shower floor none none more.

Previous Posts

Seven Ways to Get Over an Infatuation
“Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I” wrote US songwriter Lorenz Hart about the feeling of infatuation. It’s blissful and euphoric, as we all know. But it’s also addicting, messy and blinding. Without careful monitoring, its wild ...

posted 12:46:43pm Feb. 19, 2014 | read full post »

When Faith Turns Neurotic
When does reciting scripture become a symptom of neurosis? Or praying the rosary an unhealthy compulsion? Not until I had the Book of Psalms practically memorized as a young girl did I learn that words and acts of faith can morph into desperate ...

posted 10:37:13am Jan. 14, 2014 | read full post »

How to Handle Negative People
One of my mom’s best pieces of advice: “Hang with the winners.” This holds true in support groups (stick with the people who have the most sobriety), in college (find the peeps with good study habits), and in your workplace (stay away from ...

posted 10:32:10am Jan. 14, 2014 | read full post »

8 Coping Strategies for the Holidays
For people prone to depression and anxiety – i.e. human beings – the holidays invite countless possibility to get sucked into negative and catastrophic thinking. You take the basic stressed-out individual and you increase her to-do list by a ...

posted 9:30:12am Nov. 21, 2013 | read full post »

Can I Say I’m a Son or Daughter of Christ and Suffer From Depression?
In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, we read: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” What if we aren’t glad, we aren’t capable of rejoicing, and even prayer ...

posted 10:56:04am Oct. 29, 2013 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.