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
"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
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
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
"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.
the site for the rest...[registration required]