The ups and downs of smouldering talent

Photo by Flickr user beX out loud. Click for sourceIn Touched with Fire psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison argued that history’s great artists were more likely to have experienced mood problems and especially the ups and down of ‘manic depression’ that fuelled their intense creativity. The idea is attractive, although her book relied on a case by case interpretation of often long-dead figures.

Nevertheless, a new study on almost three quarters of a million Swedish young people has found remarkable support for the theory where high school students who had the highest levels of academic performance were, later in life, four times more likely to be hospitalised for bipolar disorder than average pupils.

It was also noticeable that pupils in the lowest grade range were also twice as likely to develop bipolar, with average students being at lowest risk.

The researchers controlled for parents level of education, social status and birth conditions to rule out these other factors which are known to affect the chances of developing the condition but the effect still remained.

In contrast, there seems to be a fairly direct relationship between performing poorly at school and the chance of developing schizophrenia in later life, suggesting that, to a certain extent, different influences on the developing brain may be at play.

However, it’s worth noting that although the rate of bipolar for the best performing pupils quadrupled, the risk remains low. For example, of the 9,427 top performing students only 12 were diagnosed and hospitalised with bipolar – a high rate compared to the average performers but still rare.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists have a great podcast discussion of the study with the lead researcher, psychiatrist James McCabe, and the full text of the paper is available online as a pdf.

Although McCabe suggests that the more ‘creative’ subjects seems to be most associated with bipolar, I have to say that’s probably pushing it a bit they seem to be fairly evenly spread, although, interestingly, performing well in handicraft and sport indicated the students were less likely to be diagnosed with the condition in later life.

pdf of scientific article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.
Link to Royal College of Psychiatrists podcast about the study.

One Comment

  1. Stephen
    Posted May 12, 2010 at 1:51 am | Permalink

    Lest those with bipolar disorder start to crow about their intelligence: simple application of Bayes’ theorem shows that the probability you are actually brilliant given the fact that you have bipolar (at least given this data) is only %4.35.
    A = You’re gifted.
    B = You’ve got Bipolar
    P(A) = 1.34 %
    P(B | A) = 0.13%
    P(B) = 0.04%
    P(A|B)=P(A)P(B|A)/P(B) = 4.35%


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