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Are People with Bipolar Disorder More Intelligent?

I recently wrote about the myth that you can be “too smart” to have bipolar disorder. I wrote about the prejudicial and false thought that if we were “smart enough” we wouldn’t have bipolar. This, of course, isn’t remotely true.

A couple of people requested more about bipolar disorder and intelligence.

But I’m sorry to say, the truth is, people with bipolar disorder are actually cognitively impaired compared to the average individual.

What is Intelligence?

One of the troubles with asking, “who is intelligent?” is that you need a definition for intelligence. Scientists want something specific, repeatable and reliable. The intelligent quotient (IQ) is not generally considered one of those things. So scientists measure “cognitive deficits.” In other words, they take a very specific component of brain function and measure it. Examples include vocabulary, memory, spatial reasoning and cognitive speed. “Intelligence” itself is a moving target and open to interpretation.

42-16761486Cognitive Deficits in Bipolar Disorder

As bipolar disorder is a brain illness, it shouldn’t really come as a big surprise it affects more than just the parts of the brain involved in mood. Scientists have measured all sorts of cognitive dysfunction in bipolar disorder. Here is some of what they have found, both positive and negative:

  • Cognitive dysfunction in verbal memory; dysfunction severity was linked to duration and severity of illness (Depressed, manic/hypomanic and bipolar is remission measured.)
  • Bipolars on antipsychotic drugs showed lower IQ, memory and working memory scores. Duration of illness created greater memory impairment but did not affect IQ or working memory. Family history of affective disorders correlated to higher IQ. (Measured in bipolar I patients.)
  • Visuospatial reasoning impairment seen in before manifestation of bipolar. Higher score in arithmetic reasoning was associated with a more than 12-fold greater risk in developing bipolar disorder.
  • Large dysfunction noted in: working memory, executive control, fluency and verbal memory. Medium dysfunction noted in: concept shifting, executive control, mental speed, visual memory, and sustained attention. Small dysfunction noted in visuoperception. First degree relatives also had dysfunction in executive function and verbal memory in particular. (Meta-analysis of bipolar disorder in remission.)
  • Dysfunction found in a few areas but most prominent in card sorting test, verbal memory, processing speed, sustained attention, executive function/working memory and verbal learning. (Odd increase in vocabulary function.) (Measured in bipolar disorder in remission.)
  • Poor and excellent school performance both associated with increased risk of bipolar disorder. Achieving an A grade associated with increased risk for bipolar disorder, particularly in humanities and to a lesser extent in science subjects. The association between high scores and risk for bipolar disorder seems to be confined to males. A grades in Swedish (language) and music have particularly strong associations with risk for bipolar disorder.

And that doesn’t count all the neurobiological dysfunction found in neuroimaging studies. There’s quite a bit of that too. Did you know people with bipolar disorder don’t properly process facial expressions?

(For those of you curious, the story on creativity is different, but that will have to wait for another post.)


So Then, We’re Not Smart?

It depends on your definition. But look, we’re not more intelligent, we’re not less intelligent, we’re just different. Some parts of us, like memory and visual-spatial cognition, seem to be pretty universally impaired but that’s hardly the end of the world.

And psychotropic medication, particularly antipsychotics, gets in there and messes things up further for some people. Not particularly pleasant, but not overly surprising.

Life is not Even-Steven

People want to believe those with bipolar disorder are smarter because then it seems like we got a pretty present with the not-so-pretty present of bipolar disorder. I get it. It’s romanticized. It’s “fair.” It’s convenient.

It just doesn’t happen to be true.

But you want to know the most intelligent thing of all? Dealing with reality. We weren’t given extra IQ points with the crazy. It’s OK. I don’t need that falsehood to feel better about myself.

IQ isn’t happiness. I’ll work with what I actually have to get what I want. That’s smart.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or Google+ or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitteror at Bipolar Burble, her blog.

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar Burble, Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

50 thoughts on “Are People with Bipolar Disorder More Intelligent?”

  1. Oh, well hello there Natasha. Tell me something. Who are you? Well, let me answer that question. You are a nobody. And you will always be a nobody. You go on blogs claiming that people that have mental illnesses are psychotic, but the thing that you don’t seem to realize is, that the most brilliant minds of history are folks with some sort of mental illness. Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven, Michealangelo, Charles Dickens, etc. Yep, you bet your sweet ass that they have a mental illness.
    I hope that this little speech was helpful to you. I truely do.

  2. Funny how life works. Just as in politics, our mental health tweeters tend to be red or blue. I’ve had bi polar all of my life. I have walked to the hospital twice as the pain of depression was unbearable. I have also taught myself to play jazz piano. I taught myself to paint and in 18 months had four gallery showings, I took up German two years ago, and can pick up a newspaper and work my way through it. I did this on my own. I am a self taught poet. I learned reiki recently. You are one of those red state gotta be in my state tweeters. I take my lithium, and my work is more focused. I like what my meds do for me. I will never see red because i am blue. I will see the morning because I’m not dead. Your pull yourselves up by the bootstraps might work for Ronald Reagen, but for many with bipolar, though they might want to, at times-they can’t. In fact it might be hard for them to even bend down for the boot. And that goes for reality. Sorry, but that’s the way it is. Of course I’m mentally ill, and a little slow, just take this as subjective science essay. Time for my (completely natural salt called) lithium, the sun is coming. I’ll say a prayer. Maybe god will fix me. Nah, I like the unique gifts she blessed me with. Please don’t politicize mental illness. You may find that completely normal and realistic bootstrap pulling red state guy on twitter finding you, scrambling for evidence-in a blue one.

  3. I have Bipolar II. I don’t believe lithium has made me cognitively impaired. I think your statements are overly generalized. I’m a retired lawyer. I practiced law for the years I was on medication. You are wrong.

  4. Thanks. Enjoyed reading your article. Some bipolar people do not have these cognitive deficiencies. I have bipolar I with psychosis. I read facial expressions and micro expressions very well and can flip shapes in my head and do amazingly polished geometric proofs. I am socially retarded and find most people to be regurgitating idiots…sorry for the possibility of made up words….I agree…we all have deficits…and many bipolar people are backward seeming. But many of us are very gifted at what we do.

  5. I find your prognosis quite disturbing. I started the onset of bipolar disorder at the age of 14, and the diagnosis has since been confirmed by 5 psychiatrists. I was tested between the 90-99th percentile on aptitude test scores. I was an honors school all through my school years, primarily in the math, computers, biology, chemistry and English. I completed a shortly after college program in Office Administration with Honors (top marks in my graduating class).
    Several years later, my 2nd psychiatrist said I would be on high doses anti-depressants and anti-psychotics for the rest of my life. He medicated me to the point I could not even remember what I did all day. I could not get out of bed and could not even cook a simple meal for fear of burning myself. Then he told me the final verdict was I would never work again and would eventually be institutionalized for the rest of my life.
    Contrary to just throwing in the towel, and becoming a victim to the statistics, I took my health and recovery into my own hands. I sought out a psychiatrist who not only said I was misdiagnosed, he reduced my medication until he found a single drug that keeps me stabilized.
    Since then, I completed a Business Administration program with honors. I have recently completed a Social Service Diploma with Honors achieving the highest mark in several of my classes. I work on a regular basis with persons with mental illness and addiction, as well as tutoring math, computers and biology. I am currently in University and received an A+ in Math and my computer instructor commented “Wow, students and I have been talking about how awesome your project is. Thanks for all your effort, BY FAR the best I’ve had in any class I’ve taught.”
    My illness does not define my capabilities, it only provides temporary restrictions. My illness does not define my personality, it just appears in different ways. My illness does not limit my opportunities, it allows me to find more creative methods to develop them.
    Please take care in pigeon-holing individuals based on their disease. I know doctors, lawyers, actors, scientists and mental health specialists who have bipolar disorder. They are successful in their careers and their family lives. Many people I have spoken to have said that medication played a key role in their mental cognition and abilities to function. People with mental disorders need professionals to build up their self-esteem and help them work past their limitations, not throw a label or a statistic at them and enable them to die.

  6. Iv known since a kid that something was wrong with me, but until I visted a psychologist and was diagnosed. My grades were perfect, from the age of 3 I could read most books on my own, my whole life Iv been obssessed with body language, I can recognize emotions very easily and quickly,I never forget a face, although I’m not good with names or birthdays, and struggle somewhat with learning to drive, I’m a lyricist, and I never record a song whilst reading it, always has to be from memory, Iv memorized 100s if not thousands of lyrics, from my own music to that of others. Almost everything I do, I’m good at, though I do struggle to focus on multiple things at once, I’m either too focused or not focused enough. I’d honestly say I was on the right path in life until I started taking meds, after the meds came very bad anxiety problems and multiple suicide attempts. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who wants to life a full life and enjoy it without unecessary stress. But hey, that’s just me.

  7. Yes, I’m bipolar one. I’ve never had an IQ test. I remember doing really bad in school because I was stubborn enough to think I didn’t have to prove to anyone I knew something and I was bored. I only excelled when I was challenged. I’m an artist so I guess that makes me super creative. I also write and I do feel like I’m more emotionally connected to the world than anyone I know. I’m so connected that I cannot watch the news because it will send me into depression. As for the cognitive disabilities…I don’t have them. I have a great memory…almost scary sometimes. Okay, after asking my husband I do have some executive functioning difficulties, but my Visuospatial reasoning is AWESOME!!! Do I struggle a lot with relationships YES I DO! I think that if I could trade my talents in mathematics for some people skills that would be great. All in all I do think that bipolar makes me unique and I like to look at it as something positive even though I hate it sometimes. I don’t agree that there is nothing good about it and I would never compare it to being in a wheelchair. I think having bipolar is tough enough without concentrating on what sucks about it.

  8. I think article has merit but is not conclusive. Every person is unique. I have Bi Polar one. I know when I am going on an up and know when the down is coming. So make the best of the up… be creative write down all your ideas, don’t necessarily communicate with everyone right then, you can read them all later and decide which are useful and are not. When depressed just know that you are why you are, it will get better. Roll with the punches… And for the record, my own personal view is that the greats have been bi-polar, maybe not the always the smartest… it takes a fair amount of madness to pursue the impossible, what sane person would ever try this, by definition wouldn’t that make them mad as well. And we have Bi-Polar we are not Bi-Polar, a distinct difference.

  9. grrrrr…..just diagnosed with bipolar! goin thru worst depressive phase ever! my super fast absorbing brain has totally shut down!!!i am so devastated!! cant even think a thing straight!!!

  10. Julia: I have bp II, rapid cycling. Once a month, I cycle from depression into a mania. My brain has been on this cycle since I was 13. I can tell you, with this on-schedule changing brain I have, I can “feel” the way my mind works as it … does whatever it does to bring itself through the moods from depression to mania. My manic times are my creative period, and I have no doubt about that. When I was still undiagnosed I was a research scientist, and if there was a problem I couldn’t solve, I would tell myself, just wait for a few days until you go into That Time. I counted on That Time, and every month it showed up. I know now it’s called Mania. I don’t romanticize bipolar disorder by any means. But the simple joy of creativity and new ideas afforded by the mania is something I look forward to every month. My friends call it my “idea time” and they too, over 40 years, say I am definitely more creative during a mania. Whether science agrees or not, I don’t really care. Most bipolars don’t have this regularity of mood change (I don’t THINK so anyways, mainly because several pdocs have said so), and some bipolars call manias bad or irrational. But, given that I’ve had over 400 mania-times in my life, and that I’ve used them to solve scientific problems with some success, I will state categorically that I believe the manic-brain does cause creativity. I think intelligence is innate. But I think over the years I have learned to enhance my creativity by teaching my brain how to think about things, and in doing so, have created a construct (or structure) for my creativity to work well in. I don’t know if there are bipolars out there who have been able to do this as well, but it’s remarkably useful. I’ve run across only one other person in my life who is like me — bipolar, creative, intelligent and with a photographic memory — and we both agreed that our creativity is enhanced by bipolar manias. If you disagree with this, perhaps we are creative “normally”, but super-creative during a mania.

    I also will say that it’s the creative manias that get me through depressions … but then again, every mood I have is on this monthly schedule and I’m grateful for that. (Not knowing when or if a depression will end seems like a horrible thing.)

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