The Bipolar Disorder Challenge: Making Our Amazing but Problematic Brains Work for Us

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Over a course of four posts, we have been discussing the numerous cognitive burdens that go with our illness, even when our moods are stable. In fact, for many of us, our mood fluctuations appear minor compared to what we have to deal with when the thinking parts of our brains refuse to cooperate with us.

    If only we JUST had a mood disorder. Alas, no question about it, we have a mood AND thinking disorder.

    Our brains easily overload. As we get stressed, our frontal lobes tend to go off-line. We have to work our brains harder just to bring them back online to perform even simple tasks. Often we fail.

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    Other times, it’s as if someone failed to turn on the lights. No one is home. With only slight exaggeration, it’s fair to say there are situations when we struggle to remember our own names.

    But this is only one half of the picture. In early posts, I alluded to the fact that our very same brains are capable of running rings around the rest of the population. Indeed, on Facebook, after reading my last piece, dealing with the overlap between cognitive difficulities and fatigue, Zack served up this timely reminder:

    This is interesting because I find in general I think far faster, more efficiently, and generally more in-depth than those around me, those who are relatively "normal." Even when I'm depressed. Nights without sleep or with a few hours are the exception to this, though.

    I certainly identify with Zack, and I’m sure a lot of you do, as well. Often, I feel very sorry for the pathetically normal. It’s as if they have pocket calculators for brains while we have futuristic versions of iPhones. But there is a major catch: Any iPhone of the future is at best in the beta phase of testing, replete with bugs that would drive any owner crazy. I wonder if the iPhone of the future can even power up reliably.

    Meanwhile, here are the pathetically normal all around us, with their laughably ridiculous but perfectly reliable pocket calculator brains, looking down upon us, so smug, so self-satisfied.

    Screw you! I want to shout back at them. We bring you the gift of civilization and how do you treat us? You marginalize us. Think - Michelangelo, Newton, Columbus, Beethoven, Alexander Hamilton, Dickens, Van Gogh, Teddy Roosevelt, Hemingway, Elvis, Tesla, and possibly Craig Ventner (who sequenced the human genome).

    I’m not through: What is it with you guys? Do you think gravity was just going to discover itself? Do you think your lamentably puny linear processing units that you mistake for brains are capable of producing one Aha! moment, much less an earth-shaking realization that is going to change the world?

    Don’t get me started. The so-called “normal” who rock the world aren’t as normal as you may think. Typically, they have mental illness running in their families. The first-degree relatives of those with bipolar, for instance, are your prime candidates for hitting the genetic jackpot. These are people who inherit a lot of the hyper-performing bipolar software without having to contend with all the stuff that malfunctions.

  • Here is one spectacular example, though not bipolar-related. Schizophrenia ran in Albert Einstein’s family. His second son, Eduard, was in and out of institutions most of his adult life. Nancy Andreasen of the University of Iowa makes a very strong case that Einstein probably contended with “schizotypal personality disorder.” Don’t let the designation, “personality disorder,” fool you. Dr Andreasen makes it clear that schizotypal is a form of “schizophrenia lite.”

    Einstein was extremely eccentric and often socially inappropriate. But his brain was just disorganized enough to allow him to think about things few others even deemed worth thinking about (such as riding on a beam of light), and then making the kind of mental connections no one else could come close to making, and finally fashioning his efforts into mind-boggling pieces of perfect logic.

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    But Einstein was also blessed with a processing unit that functioned reliably. As chaotic as Einstein’s thinking may have appeared, his creativity and intuition were yoked to a highly ordered rationality, all of which in turn was governed by a tightly focused and disciplined mind. A dreamer who could produce, a weirdo who somehow fit right in, indeed to be admired and lauded - that’s Einstein in a nutshell.

    This brings us to the bipolar challenge. Our amazing brains, in effect, operate in a hyper-reality that even when depressed allows us to perceive the world in startlingly original ways and come up with solutions to riddles that elude the chronically normal. Scientists such as Nancy Andreasen very much appreciate this.

    But what gets all the attention with our illness are the things that plague our lives, and the bulk of the scientific research is understandably focussed on this. If only researchers were capable of performing an fMRI on the likes of Isaac Newton as he was experiencing his historic Aha! moment.

    Alas, we can’t do it. Or - rather - it’s going to take an Isaac Newton to figure out how to do it.

    So here we are, born into the bipolar challenge, faced with how to get our seemingly limitless but flawed brains working to our advantage. A number of years ago, Tom Wootton brilliantly articulated this issue in his self-published book, “The Bipolar Advantage.” Indeed, when we get our brains working for us, we can run rings around the pathetically normal. And many of us have experienced this during our all-too-brief bright shining moments.

    If only we could do this all the time, or at least enough of the time to create a sense of reliable function. Tom Wootton gave the false impression that accomplishing this is relatively easy. Even when he cautioned that we needed to put in the hard work, he made it sound effortless.

    But if all of this were were so self-evident and achievable, we would have figured everything out ourselves a long time ago. We wouldn’t need to be reading Tom Wootton or myself or others. Alas! Alas! - we have our work cut out for us.

    The bipolar challenge, we’re all in it together. More to come ... 


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    Previous posts:


    Issues in Bipolar: Problems Thinking


    Problems Thinking - A New Bipolar Conversation


    Bipolar Disorder and Problems Thinking


    Problems in Bipolar Thinking - The Sleep Connection

Published On: September 18, 2011