Rethinking Psychology

How to shed mental health labels and create personal meaning

Intelligence, Creativity and Mania

Why do smart and manic so often go together?

Natural psychology, the new psychology of meaning, takes a particular interest in smart people and their poignant challenges. I wrote recently about the “smart gap,” the distance between where an intelligent person feels herself to be or may in fact be and the intelligence she needs in order to accomplish the work she intends to do. Today I want to chat about that mysterious, fascinating and frequently dangerous state known as mania.

Mania can hit anyone, since it can be induced by street drugs and by other causes as well as by the dynamics of one’s own racing, needy brain. But I want to focus on the way that it afflicts intelligent and creative people. That they are afflicted is beyond question. Research shows a linkage between A grades and “bipolar disorder,” between high test scores and “bipolar disorder,” and so on. There is plenty of evidence to support the contention that mania disproportionately affects smart and creative people.

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One study involving 700,000 adults and reported in the British Journal of Psychiatry indicated that former straight-A students were four times more likely to be “bipolar” (or “manic-depressive”) than their peers. In another study individuals who scored the highest on tests for “mathematical reasoning” were at a 12-times greater risk for “contracting bipolar disorder.” Similar studies underline the linkage between creativity and mania and we have thousands of years of anecdotal evidence in support of the view that smart and creative people are often manic.

“Manic-depression” and “bipolar disorder” are in quotation marks in the previous paragraph because the current naming system used to describe “mental disorders” is weak and suspect and perhaps so flawed as to be both useless and dangerous. I’ve discussed this in Rethinking Depression and elsewhere. The current naming system also leads to odd and wrong-headed hypotheses, for example “because you are bipolar you are creative” or “perhaps mania accounts for the higher test scores.” It is hard to make any real use of the research as currently conducted, except to nod in agreement with its results, as they are exactly what we would expect: the greater the intelligence, the greater the susceptibility to mania.

Why? The answer is perfectly clear and natural. Forget for a second everything you think you know about mania. Maybe you suppose that it must be a certain sort of biological disorder; maybe you guess that it’s a psychological problem of a certain sort; forget all of that for a moment and consider the following. If you are intelligent, you are inclined to have thoughts. Why would those thoughts not be inclined to race in certain circumstances? Why would they not be inclined to race, especially if you felt yourself at an existential extremity with the very meaning of your life in question?  

Mania in this instance is simply a racing brain driven by a certain powerful pressure, need or impulse. Anything that gets in the way of this seemingly forward motion—a physical obstacle, another person’s viewpoint, a delay in the bus arriving—is viewed as a tremendous irritation. Hence the irritability so often associated with mania. This irritation makes perfect sense: if you must get on with it—get every wall painted red, capture that song, solve that theorem—then nothing must get in the way. This all follows.

It is this “must” that is at the heart of the matter. The “must” is the foot on the pedal that is driving the racing brain.  There is an emergency here, most often an existential emergency as the individual stares at nothingness and is petrified by the view. She must get away from that horrible feeling and with a kind of strangled laugh that mimics mirth but that isn’t mirth she turns to her brain for help. She is frightened and in anguish and to deal with that she shouts to her brain, “Get me out of here!” And her brain takes off, dreaming up every manner of scheme, activity, and desire.

All of the characteristic “symptoms” that we see in mania, including seemingly high spirits, heightened sexual appetite, high arousal levels, high energy levels, sweating, pacing, sleeplessness and, at its severest, when the train has run off the rails, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, suspiciousness, aggression and all sorts of wild, self-defeating plans and schemes, make perfect sense when viewed from the perspective that a powerful need has supercharged a brain inclined to generate thoughts. This thought machine has been revved up in the service of nothing less than the direst existential hunger, lack, or fear imaginable. All the rest follows. 

The driving impulse or “must” may not be only pain or even pain. You may be working on a novel or a scientific theory that excites you and you can’t wait to get on with it. Still, that excited pursuit, even though in pursuit of something positive and valuable, has caused your mind to move from gear to higher gear, dramatically revving up the engine that is your brain, and now that engine is whining and straining. The same dangerous dynamic is now at play: are you driving the engine or is the engine driving you?

What is the answer? Natural psychology has many answers having to do with the art and practice of making meaning. However the short answer is increased self-awareness and the courage to see one’s own games and tactics. It is the individual exposing this situation to himself and for himself, announcing that he must wrest control of his mind and his life, and practicing the techniques conventionally called mindfulness techniques, that amount to the short answer.

If a given individual won’t do this work or at this split second can’t do this work, because her mania just can’t be mediated by her own efforts in the state in which she finds herself, then she may indeed be forced to resort to the conventional, unfortunate solution of psychiatric medicine. She may need lithium, anticonvulsants, calcium channel blockers, antipsychotics, benzodiazepines, or some other chemical used to “treat mania” and with the power (though only sometimes, and always with a cost) to do that work for her: the work of modulating her mind and meeting her meaning needs.

In the end it is the smart “manic” individual who ultimately must accomplish the odd and seemingly impossible task of saying, if only in a whisper, “I know the secret here and the answer is not mania.” In a naturalistic vision of what is going on, where it is completely sensible and plausible how this wild ride came to be by virtue of the twin engines of intelligence and need, we ask the individual, and demand of him if we love him, that he examine his reasons for racing and not feel so free to race.

It is not a race that can be won, a truth the smart manic knows somewhere in her being and a truth that brings with it additional sadness even at the height of the racing. Indeed, it is that sadness that the smart manic is fleeing as fast as she can, even as she is racing right toward it. It is like the Sufi tale of the disciple who flees his town because he believes that Death is coming for him there and races right to the place where Death is waiting. That is exactly where the manic also arrives, at “depression.”

There is a similar story to be told about creativity and mania. It is not that the two phenomena “associate” for no particular reason. It is that the creative person who experiences creating as a meaning opportunity is pressured to create and pressured to race in the service of her creative efforts, a pressure that she can usually mediate but which sometimes overwhelms her. But this is another story. For now the headline is as follows: if you are smart you are at a “substantially greater risk for mania.” This is too brief a look at this important subject but I hope that it has given you a glimpse of the issue and a hint at solutions.

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Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, bestselling author of 40 books, and widely regarded as America’s foremost creativity coach. His latest book is Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning (New World Library, February, 2012) and is available here. Dr. Maisel is the founder of natural psychology, the new psychology of meaning. Please visit Dr. Maisel at http://www.ericmaisel.com or contact him at ericmaisel@hotmail.com. You can learn more about natural psychology at http://www.infinitemeaningclass.com.

Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of forty books, among them Rethinking Depression.

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