Are People with Bipolar Disorder More Intelligent?

June 23, 2011 Natasha Tracy

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.

Cognitive 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.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2011, June 23). Are People with Bipolar Disorder More Intelligent?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, December 2 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleTwitter, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

June, 24 2011 at 11:33 am

I know the cognitive impairments well, it is something that always seems to dog me. I have a hard time distinguishing tone and facial expression. Verbally I see to be okay but school was hell for me and I dropped out in Junior High.
With that said. I educate myself as best I can and read everything I can wrap my hands around.
Cognitive deficits do not indicate stupid they just point out challenges. I am confident to go toe to toe mentally with anyone. Thats what is all about. Self-confidence and a "don't give a shit" attitude.
cheers Natasha

Natasha Tracy
June, 24 2011 at 8:55 am

Hi Ash,
I'm a pretty bright gal myself and being bipolar doesn't make me an idiot either.
That's not really the point.
People specifically asked me about bipolar and intelligence many saying that people with bipolar are more intelligent. I'm just answering that question with research data. Each individual is unique and bipolar disorder neither makes a person intelligent or not.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
June, 24 2011 at 8:49 am

Hi Faycin,
No one, least of all me, is saying you're not intelligent. Scientific findings represent statistical likelihood and not individual circumstances. Many mentally ill people are brilliant. Many are not.
As I said, intelligence is a complicated concept and open to interpretation. While no one cognitive dysfunction may represent intelligence or lack thereof, it is the only real way we have to measure intelligence, particularly when the dysfunction is measured en mass.
But that doesn't matter. You may be incredibly bright or not, but there is no reason to hate yourself either way.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
June, 24 2011 at 8:44 am

Hi Kelly,
I'm sorry you're having such memory problems. You might want to talk to your doctor about the severity.
It's little understood the effects mood disorders have outside of mood as we rely on self-reporting and studying this is pretty tough. But we're learning more and more. And hopefully that information gives you some peace.
(I should also mention there are many therapies to work to improve memory. Again, your doctor should be able to give you more information if he doesn't feel it's related to the meds.)
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
June, 24 2011 at 8:39 am

Hi Anniem,
I'm glad you've found success. And you're right, medications can cause mental clouding, particularly when overused.
But, with all due respect, medication doesn't make people less intelligent. Certainly there are prices to pay with medication but one thing I know for sure is that all the IQ points in the world doesn't help if you can't get off the couch.
And while I didn't focus on anything with the above research, there is lots of research on med-free brains as well (and one link above) that shows cognitive dysfunction in mental illness.
But those are statistical facts and not individual ones.
Obviously you've found something that works for you, which is great.
- Natasha

June, 24 2011 at 8:25 am

I have very good verbal skills, but spatial is another matter entirely. That's in spite of multiple drug cocktails.
You've heard of chemical castrations? It seems to me that people are too quick to give chemical lobotomies to everyone who thinks the least bit differently.

June, 24 2011 at 7:59 am

Through all of my schooling I've been a mostly A student. I excelled in almost everything. In college, I've done particularly well in the humanities and in the more creativity-based courses. I find that even though I'm often forgetting things that I need to do, my memory for academic knowledge has not only been great, but has improved since going on medication. However, my visuospatial reasoning is absolutely terrible, though that's been the whole of my life. I have a harder time sensing the space around me than most people I know.
Even though I have bipolar disorder, it doesn't change what I've already accomplished. It doesn't mean that I'm suddenly an idiot.

Faycin A Croud
June, 24 2011 at 5:55 am

Since I grew up believing that I was retarded due to being somewhat dyslexic, I refuse to have anybody take away from me the fact that I learned that I could pass the test to get into Mensa, much to my surprise. I opted not to join because I did not want to come off as an intellectual snob. I don't care for snobbery of any kind.
I would argue that intelligence (IQ) and cognitive impairment are two different things. There are extremely intelligent people whose learning disabilities make it difficult for them to express their intellectual gifts to the world.
I am not saying I am particularly gifted in any area because my thoughts do tend to be scattered and my attention span is terrible. I have OCD as well as bipolar disorder. I have often been accused of being a "space cadet." I have to write everything down, otherwise I'll forget to do it.
Nonetheless, I'm not letting anyone tell me I'm not intelligent. I spent too many years hating myself and believing myself to be stupid to allow that to happen.

Kelly Goetzmann
June, 23 2011 at 2:10 pm

I found this interesting and extremely relevent to myself. Both my short-term and long-term memory are swiss cheese. I've attributed it to a year of ECT treatments 6-7 years ago and multiple drug cocktails for years. I'm sure it all has contributed to my change in brain function, but I never realized the nature of Bipolar outside of "mental" instability. My mind has reverted to a time where writing on my hand is the ONLY way I remember things. To my credit, being such a flake has dropped 2 pant sizes off me. We recently moved into a home with 2 flights of stairs and I forget what I'm doing so on the days I manage to get off the couch, I end up going up and down the stairs a million times a day : ) I appreciate you making the link as part of the answer of my daily question "What the hell is wrong with me?"

June, 23 2011 at 1:59 pm

Hi Natasha: By the time I was 8 years old I figured out I was "different" than other people. However, school was always easy. Tell me or show me once, and I got it. The spelling and definitions of words came as naturally as breathing. When it came to getting and learning a new job, not a problem. I had excellent organizational skills. It wasn't until I went on meds that I couldn't remember anything, couldn't follow crochet patterns anymore, couldn't remember how to get to places I'd been to time after time, became more and more clumsy and accident prone while cooking, and, most importantly, couldn't read or creatively write anymore. Now that I am med free, I am me again. It is my opinion that it's the meds that chip away at our intelligence and our very sense of self, not the progression of the illness. I have had therapist after psychiatrist comment about my excellent insight re: self, illness, and family dynamics. To be honest, the only thing I found myself agreeing with in this piece is that I have absolutely no ability to remember faces!

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