YE OLD MYTH
Kanye West’s Bipolar Disorder and the Shaky Science of the ‘Tortured Genius’
His new album seemingly confirms his bipolar disorder—but also extends the problematic notion that creativity stems from mental illness.
Kanye West's surprise album, titled ye, dropped Friday, its tangled verses addressing everything from Stormy Daniels to his controversial "slavery was a choice" tirade to being the father of daughters in the age of #MeToo.
But ye's cover art included a blatant confirmation of West's bipolar disorder, with the phrase "I hate being Bi-polar it's awesome" scrawled across a majestic image of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Embedded within the lyrics are raw, painful recollections of suicide ideation:
The most beautiful thoughts are always besides the darkest
Today I seriously thought about killing you
I contemplated, premeditated murder
And I think about killing myself, and I love myself way more than I love you, so.
West also raps about his bipolar disorder:
That's my bipolar shit, n---a what
That's my superpower, n---a ain't no disability
I'm a superhero! I'm a superhero!
The rapper has long hinted at the fact that his mental illness has been key in his musical ability, particularly in his previous album, The Life of Pablo. In “Feedback,” he hints at his mental illness’s role in his work:
Name one genius that ain’t crazy
… I’ve been outta my mind a long time
Similarly, in “FML,” he references a drug used to treat anxiety:
See, before I let you go
One last thing I need to let you know
You ain’t never seen nothing crazier than
This n***a when he is off his Lexapro
But the tortured genius myth—the idea that the melancholy and the demons deep within a person’s mind might help explain their otherworldly talent in art—is one that science has been unable to positively prove. History is rife with examples of the tortured genius, from Vincent Van Gogh to Ernest Hemingway to Amy Winehouse.
In 2015, a study in Nature Neuroscience claimed to have found proof of such a correlation. The ability to be creative requires being able to challenge the status quo, not fall in line. Could people who were mentally ill have their brains wired to act differently to automatically think of alternatives?
The researchers used the genetic and medical information of 86,000 Icelanders, a group that is genetically homogenous and isolated. From this group, the researchers identified “genetic variants,” or mutations that didn’t run normally. Those variants showed that people who carried them had twice the risk of schizophrenia, and were about 33 percent more likely to have bipolar disorder.
The researchers then looked at how likely it was that these variants were members of national arts societies, and found that there was a 17 percent increased likelihood that they had markers of these variants compared to others. In the Netherlands and Sweden as well, the pattern seemed to hold: Creative people tended to display a higher likelihood of having mental disorder variants.
Immediately, the headlines rolled in, with people suggesting that finally, finally, the tortured genius stereotype had actually been proven true.
Except a few things were problematic. The populations the study drew from were isolated and highly homogeneous. Simply put, genetic variants were more likely to occur because people had very similar DNA types. The study also measures artistic ability based on membership in organizations, but it’s very possible that an artistic person could be artistic and not be a member of any organization. And who’s to say what is artistic anyway? Self-serving bias may play a role here.
Most damning was the fact that the variation in artistic ability was found to be teeny-tiny, nearly ignorable—just 0.25 percent. As David Cutler, an Emory University geneticist, told The Guardian: “If the distance between me, the least artistic person you are going to meet, and an actual artist is one mile, these variants appear to collectively explain 13 feet of the distance.”
It’s also an issue of selective data and how you define creativity. Creativity, after all, is not exclusively of the domain of fine art and music and movies; creativity is tackling a problem with fresh insight and with a unique approach that challenges what is accepted. In 2014, Albert Rothenberg, a Harvard psychiatrist, published Flight From Wonder: An Investigation of Scientific Creativity, and found that of the 45 Nobel laureates he interviewed, there was no evidence of a link between mental illness and their creativity.
A 2010 overview of bipolar disorder and creativity in the journal Clinical Psychology Review tackled this stereotype head on and focused on the bipolar disease West claims to have. The researchers found that the relationship between bipolar disorder and creativity seemed to be “non-linear;” that is, there isn’t a clear connection between having the mental illness and being creatively gifted. In fact, studies in the meta-analysis seemed to suggest that those who had more severe forms of the disorder had difficulty being creative. More likely than not, however, the researchers say that “it can be argued that the association between creativity and bipolar disorder likely arises from a partly shared substrate in personality traits and cognitive-affective processes.”
In other words: The personality traits associated with being bipolar might lend themselves more to being creative and thinking outside the box, but does not directly lead to a spike in creativity.
Which makes West’s decision to frame his mental illness as his “superpower” one that comes with two sides. On one hand, West’s honesty about his mental illness and the fact that he doesn’t have shame about it is one that the mental health community has long heralded as key towards erasing stigma around the subject. Celebrities occupy an important, powerful pedestal when it comes to the shame associated with having a mental illness, the idea that one might be crazy or unfit to produce work that can be appreciated by the greater public. With his open and honest embracing of his mental illness and acceptance of it as part of who he is, West joins the ranks of the late Carrie Fisher and Mariah Carey in taking control of his narrative. He’s got bipolar disorder—so what? It’s his superpower.
But therein is the tricky aspect of his taking ownership of his bipolar disorder and making it his superpower: He embraces the tortured genius stereotype that science has found to be questionable, and in fact makes for a stigma onto itself. Love him or hate him, West is undeniably a force of a culture, and his rapping ability stems from his ability to weave lyrics together in unusual ways and speak about his experience in moving ways, and his ability to fold in his experiences as a human being and man struggling with mental illness.
Neuroscience, in fact, might play a role in West’s talent. A 2016 case study in Neurocase analyzed “a 55-year old right-handed male, with normal hearing and no history of neurological disorders” to understand musical creativity. The researchers used a functional MRI and scanned the man’s brain while he performed a variety of creative tasks: painting, composing music, listening to a wide range of tunes. They found the man’s mind seemed to group songs together that he liked, away from those he didn’t seem to like, with these being further subdivided by key, tempo, motif, and orchestration. The brain of this man (who was later, amusingly, revealed to be the musician Sting) indicated that the musically talented had hyper-organized minds that were attuned to different aspects of music in ways that others might not be.
In other words, Kanye West is Kanye West because of his skill and ability—in spite of, not because of, his mental illness.