Why are there so many great writers with epilepsy?

Epilepsy and Hypergraphia

Vincent Van Gogh, whose feverish pace of painting and writing resembles hypergraphia, cut off his ear because of hallucinations caused by epilepsy.
Vincent Van Gogh, whose feverish pace of painting and writing resembles hypergraphia, cut off his ear because of hallucinations caused by epilepsy.
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Besides its tendency to induce hallucinations and other disturbing stimuli, epilepsy has been linked to a condition called hypergraphia, an all-consuming desire to write. The overwhelming urge to write -- and to write constantly -- and a form of epilepsy appear to come from the same part of the brain: the temporal lobe. A troubled temporal lobe may then both spur someone to write obsessively and also cause temporal lobe epilepsy, which itself can provide some interesting material for writers. Other disorders that have been reported to cause hypergraphia are Asperger's syndrome, bipolar disorder, which shares some characteristics with epilepsy, and schizophrenia. It's worth noting that many of these writers, and epileptic artists like Vincent van Gogh, were quite prolific, in some cases over rather short life spans. (Van Gogh, who may have had both epilepsy and bipolar disorder, painted constantly and wrote his brother multiple letters a day.)

Epilepsy and hypergraphia can be accompanied by depression, which for some artists is a bane and for others a challenging source of inspiration. But depression, with its many possible causes, isn't likely a source of artistic talent. Instead, it often provides a reason for people to sort out their problems through art [source: BBC]. Similarly, the presence of hypergraphia isn't a guarantee of talent. But creative thought, and writing in particular, seems to rely on the left temporal lobe, though both sides of the brain play important roles [source: Flaherty].

­Numerous prominent writers have been diagnosed as depressed or bipolar, but is there a connection? Bipolar disorder is 10 times more prevalent in writers than in nonwriters (and even more common in poets) [source: Flaherty]. One possible reason for this is that manic periods can increase activity in the temporal lobe, which, again, is associated with the urge to write and be creative. Unipolar depression -- depression without manic periods -- is also much more common in writers than nonwriters, perhaps up to 10 times more so [source: Flaherty]. So it may be that a mental disorder spurs someone to write or to create art (or provides something to write about), but there are many reasons why people turn to art. Many of them have little to do with the brain, damaged or otherwise. A troubled mind need not be the only motivator.

For more articles you might like about mental health and the brain, from epileptic seizures during a full moon to the evolution of the human brain, try the links below.

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  • Baruchin, Aliyah. "Easing the Seizures, and Stigma, of Epilepsy." New York Times. http://health.nytimes.com/ref/health/healthguide/esn-epilepsy-ess.html
  • Flaherty, Alice W. "The Midnight Disease." New York: Mariner Books, 2004.
  • Ko, David Y. "Temporal Lobe Epilepsy." EMedicine. May 8, 2008. http://www.emedicine.com/neuro/TOPIC365.HTM
  • "Alcohol and Epilepsy." Epilepsy Foundation. http://www.epilepsyfoundation.org/living/wellness/alcohol/
  • "Classical Writers With Epilepsy." Epilepsy.com. Nov. 8, 2007.
  • "Hypergraphia." BBC. April 22, 2005. http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A3851093
  • "Lord Byron." German Epilepsy Museum. http://www.epilepsiemuseum.de/english/prominen/byron.html
  • "Studies Literary Representations of Epilepsy through Independent Research." Lafayette College. Jan. 17, 2006.
  • "What is epilepsy?" Epilepsy Foundation. http://www.epilepsyfoundation.org/about/