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“How bi-polar folks think”

June 14, 2007

One of the things I enjoy about blogging is reading through the terms people plug into search engines, in order to arrive at my blog. Sometimes the terms a bit bizarre, but mostly I use it as a guide to where I should be focusing my writing – at the very least, it sometimes gives me ideas of things to blog about. The title for this post, “how bi-polar folks think,” was just such a search term – and it sent me along an interesting path of research and introspection. So, whoever you were, thank you – I hope you were able to get some idea of what you were looking for and, in case you didn’t, I’ll add my thoughts to your search topic here :-)

First, I’m not an expert when it comes to the cognitive function of a bipolar person. Second, I can’t speak for all bipolar people in the world, nor would I attempt to. Since I don’t have any definitive studies on the nuts and bolts of bipolar cognition to quote, haven’t spent time in bipolar communities or support groups, the best I can offer here are my perspectives as someone recently diagnosed (but who has likely been bipolar for a number of years). If someone reading this actually has some studies that have been done on bipolar cognition, please leave a comment with some links or other references :-)

A connection seems to exist between some bipolar people and creativity. I haven’t seen anything that suggests creativity and bipolar disorder go hand-in-hand, just references that point out some people with bipolar disorder who happened to be very intelligent and / or creative (look for the link on my sidebar to the list of famous bipolar people). At the very least, I have yet to see anything that suggests bipolar disorder reduces intellect. In fact, I have read an article suggesting that one of the differences between bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, as far as cognitive impairment goes, is that bipolar disorder doesn’t negatively affect IQ points (“Cognitive Impairment in Patients With Bipolar Disorder: Effect on Psychosocial Functioning,” by David C. Glahn, PhD and Dawn I. Velligan, PhD, in the May 01, 2007 Vol. 24 No. 6 edition of Psychiatric Times). Reading this article, it seems our problems tend more toward memory, emotional judgment / control, and ability to concentrate – based on the way my own mind responds, I tend to agree with this assessment.

Regarding intellect, my IQ test results in the past were reasonably high. My experience taking the SAT in high school was also interesting: the first time I took it, I went to workshops, studied strategies, ate the right foods and got plenty of bed rest before the exam; I did everything right, and scored a hundred points lower than I did the following year, when I did no workshops, stayed up late the night before the exam, and showed up almost too late to take the exam after setting the love of my life on an airplane and thinking I wouldn’t see her again for a very long time (it turned out to be over a decade, actually) … essentially, I did better when I shot from the hip with an exhausted, frazzled mind. A common complaint of mine is that my thoughts race – they race so fast that it’s really, really hard for me to think or act at times, and I’m typically very easily distracted. I think it’s possible that, up to a point, the racing thoughts are like the brain’s raw horsepower being unleashed … this might explain the creativity and intelligence that have been associated with bipolar disorder. The problem I have is that my thoughts are kind of like the cartoon character, Wile E. Coyote, with the rocket attached to his back: he can catch the Roadrunner, he can overtake the Roadrunner, and go flying out of control right off a cliff, only to run out of fuel while still in midair … my thoughts will also slow to a point where I feel like every thought and motion is taking place in a giant bowl of pudding, something I equate to the ‘dropping’ the coyote goes through when his rocket runs out of fuel. Consciously, I can’t speed my thoughts back up, no matter how hard I try – and all the bursts of genius and creativity I may have been experiencing just the day before are gone. I wouldn’t say that I get stupid, I would really equate the whole experience to my mind having drive or not having drive, and at no time really having control over it one way or the other. I think the actual mechanism of thought is the same – it’s like healthy people and I have the same hard drives for brains, but sometimes I get surges of power that make my hard drive spin faster, faster, too fast … then it has to slow way down or shut down to cool off … or sometimes the hard drive gets power, but just enough to make it spin at something like 1.5 rpm.

Linear, polarized, rigid thinking is also something I’m known for. The worst is when I somehow convince myself of something based on unsound logic: I won’t budge, and I get extremely irritated when someone tries to budge me. I’m introspective enough to see that with hindsight; but when it’s actually happening, I can’t see it. My suspicion and personal theory is that the rapid-firing of thoughts acts like the way cartoon shows work: still images that are flipped so fast that our mind accepts the reality of a moving cartoon. When my thoughts are moving at a high rate, they form their own sort of moving picture in my mind and I suspect it’s this moving picture I’m locking onto, rather than still thoughts and drawn-out logic. The problem is that this moving picture is accepted by my mind as real – it’s hard for me to grasp the difference, especially when I’m simply not in the mood to try. Honestly, the idea that there are periods when I try to stand firm on unsound logic is something that scares me much more than I like to admit.

Where I notice this racing, spiraling process or state most dramatically though is not in logical thought, but in emotion. The rocket on my back applies to all aspects of my mind, and my emotions are of course bundled with this … the rocket and subsequent drop are ‘felt’ by my emotions more than any other part of my mind. And, just as with my thoughts, my emotions are damned hard for me to control – even when I’m applying everything I’ve got to either holding back my rage or not revealing to the people around me just how dark a place my mind has gone to, I slip. Actually, I don’t think it’s accurate to speak of controlling my emotions – what I work to control are my actions. And when my emotions and thoughts are either racing or plunging, it’s powerful enough that sometimes my actions aren’t fully within my ability to control. I mean think about it: if your thoughts were racing so fast you couldn’t focus, your logic corrupted by who-knows-what, and a spiraling rage coursing through mind and body, how much effort would you need to keep from erupting? Now, throw depression into that very same mixture – that feeling that nothing you do will matter one way or another. Thankfully, that isn’t how it is for me every time I get energized – I’d say it happens that way on average twice per month. Sometimes I go into a joke and laughter mode and wind up standing in place and babbling like a short-circuited robot, sometimes I’m just euphoric and inspired with some spiffy ideas, sometimes I’m simply a pain in the ass. Other times, I’m too depressed to bother with thinking. I also have times I would say come close to ‘normal’.

With all of that considered, it’s pretty easy for me to see why concentration, memory, emotion and sound judgment can be profoundly affected by bipolar disorder. I can also see why intellect itself isn’t necessarily impaired, at least not permanently so (there are times when I feel like my ability to process and understand are impaired … but these times are temporary and not what I would call ‘normal’ for myself). Now, when you ask something like how bipolar people (plural) think, you also have to take into consideration that each person is unique. Each person’s brain is unique: being constructed from its own genetic resources, and filled with its own memories, perspectives and learning experiences. How bipolar disorder manifests itself in a person’s mind is just as unique as the individual, despite observed tendencies and scientific models of the bipolar brain. So, while the question of how bipolar folks think prompted me to type up this response, perhaps the more relevant question would be to ask the bipolar person who inspired you to research this how he or she thinks?

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One comment

  1. I liked your post. My daughter is also bipolar. She is really creative. Sometimes she is a bit scattered with her thoughts though.



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