By Dr David Laing Dawson
Currently two serial TV shows of the thriller/spy genre feature major characters who suffer from bipolar illness. Both usually take their medication and acknowledge that it keeps them stable. So far so good. They are successful likable characters and thus could be seen as antidotes to stigma, to the usual poor representation of mental illness by film and television. But in both story lines the characters go off their medication in order to decipher a complex conspiracy. They become manic, paper the walls of their rooms with clippings, photos, lists, time lines, arrows, connecting lines, question marks.
Voila. The unlikely pattern becomes clear to them. And once again the myth of madness and genius being one and the same is exploited for entertainment.
Our brains are organizing machines. They are always looking for patterns, recognizable and logical patterns. In a state of mania and hypomania, aroused, alert and scanning for such patterns, the brain does indeed find them more readily, that is, the brain invents them. The manic person sees connections and patterns where none exist, and to make this connection the manic brain often invents forces, and powers and conspiracies that are pure fictions. This might result in an interesting piece of art, a fascinating stream of consciousness, or even an entertaining performance, but it is a dysfunctional state and it does not result in valuable insight. The usual result is loss of employment, loss of community, loss of reputation, and eventually loss of freedom.
To portray mania as a form of genius does great disservice to those who actually suffer from this illness.
Of course mental illness does not discriminate so we are as likely to find that it strikes a brilliant mind as often as that of an oaf. And that is not a pattern either. Just statistical probability.