Hypomanic? Absolutely. But Oh So Productive!
by Benedict Carey

"Sometimes when talking to people, I'll tell them that I just had a lot of coffee, even though it's not true, because I know I fire off in all directions, and I can talk to you about anything--literature, string theory, rock guitar--I once worked for Leo Fender--and one thing I say to people is that, of course, I live near the edge; the view is better."

Laurence McKinney, 60, who lives near the edge of Boston, is a business consultant, a Harvard graduate and self-described polymath who has had a career that is every bit as frenzied as his conversational style.

Among other ventures, he said, he has started pharmaceutical companies, played in rock bands and helped design electric guitars, and written a book about the neuroscience of spirituality. This month for the first time, he helped start a Web site for people like himself. They are known as hypomanics.

At some point, almost everyone encounters them--restless, eager people, consumed with confident curiosity. Researchers suspect that their mental fever shares some genetic basis with bipolar disorder, known colloquially as manic depression, a psychiatric disorder characterized by effusive emotional highs and bouts of paralyzing despair.

In recent decades, scientists have found that bipolar disorder is widely variable, and that its milder forms are marked by hypomanias, currents of mental energy and concentration that are less reckless than full-blown manic frenzies, and unspoiled, in many cases, by subsequent gloom.

New research helps explain how people with manic or hypomanic tendencies navigate the small triumphs and humiliations of daily life, and provide clues to how some of them shake off the emotional troughs that their ambitious natures should make inevitable.

"It kind of goes against the common assumption, but many people who are inclined to hypomanic or manic symptoms have an underlying resilience," said Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University. "They may get trashed by their peers, laid low, but they respond very strongly."

In her new book, "Exuberance," Dr. Jamison argues that flights of joyous energy similar to hypomanic states frequently accompany scientific and literary inspiration.
Psychiatrists have known for more than a century that bipolar disorder, unlike any other mental illness, is often associated with some financial and professional accomplishment. Mania can inspire destructive shopping or gambling sprees, but it can also generate bursts of creative focused work.

Psychiatrists and psychologists have found ample evidence for bipolar tendencies in the life histories of many famous writers and painters. The composer Robert Schumann, for example, experienced extreme mood swings; so, some now argue, did poet Emily Dickinson.

Some studies suggest that first-degree relatives of people with bipolar illness, who are likely to inherit some genetic basis for bipolar disorder, are particularly likely to enjoy high socioeconomic status.

Most recently, researchers have turned their attention to the mild end of the bipolar spectrum, and sliced it into many permutations. Bipolar II, III and IV, for example, each include depressive episodes and varieties of hypomania, or exuberant moods. Cyclothymic disorder involves rapid cycling from moderate depressive to manic symptoms, and hyperthymia is a state of elevated mood.

"When you look across the entire bipolar spectrum, you find maybe 10 percent to 15 percent of these people never get depressed: they're just up," said Ronald C. Kessler, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School.

As one psychiatrist put it, Dr. Kessler said, "The goal of life is constant hypomania: you never sleep too much; you're on; you keep going."

With the exception of Bipolar II and cyclothymic disorder, which are accepted as standard psychiatric diagnoses, these permutations of low-level bipolar disorder overlap with each other and with normal ranges of mental function so much that some scientists question how distinct they are.

"For some of us, there is a lot of wariness about this tendency to see bipolar disorder everywhere," said Dr. William Coryell, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa School of Medicine, adding that "it's very difficult to determine reliable boundaries between one diagnosis and another" and document the true prevalence of the conditions.

Yet even if bipolar disorders can be reliably diagnosed in only 2 percent of the population, some now believe that hypomania or similar charged states are more prevalent than previously imagined. About 6 percent of college students score high on personality tests that measure hypomanic tendencies, some studies find, and about 10 percent of children rate as temperamentally "exuberant," a related quality.

Outsized delight in small successes may be central to what kindles hypomanic natures and sustains them. In an effort to learn how the joys and sorrows of everyday life affect mania and depression, Dr. Sheri Johnson, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami, began surveying men and women in whom bipolar had been diagnosed.

Originally, Dr. Johnson was interested in the effect of negative events, like struggles at work or arguments at home. "But the people in the study told us we were getting it wrong, that it was when good things happened that they felt they had their manias," Dr. Johnson said…

Dr. John Gartner, a psychiatrist in Baltimore who specializes in treating hypomania, recently published "The Hypomanic Edge," a book that identifies hypomanic symptoms in the lives of American historical figures from Christopher Columbus to the biotech entrepreneur J. Craig Venter.

"These are people who are always moving the goal posts," Dr. Gartner said in an interview. "If they do well at one thing, they shoot for the moon."

In a footnote in his book, Dr. Gartner recounts the story of how Henry Ford sailed off on a luxury steamer on a whim in 1915 to personally end World War I and bring world peace. "I'll bet this ship against a penny," Ford boasted to the reporters, "that we'll have the boys out of the trenches by Christmas."

This grandiosity practically begs for a tragic fall. Difficult goals are by definition less likely to be achieved, even by those with mental power packs, and there is little question that people with hypomanic tendencies feel disappointment deeply. For some, their fevered, scavenging curiosity may overwhelm any excess rumination: new projects beckon before old ones can be mourned.

"I'm not so much smarter than other people as faster," said Mr. McKinney, the polymath near Boston, who contacted Dr. Gartner after hearing of his book. "I swing more often, I make errors, but I make them faster. That's how I sometimes describe it. If you can focus this energy, you can do great things with it. If not, well I think it can be difficult."…

The view may be better, but it's easy to lose your balance.

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