Was Vincent van Gogh autistic?

There’s no doubt in my mind that Van Gogh had bipolar disorder. He had many symptoms related to bipolar disorder: manic episodes, depressive episodes, hallucinations, sleep disturbance, substance abuse, memory problems, nightmares, and anxiety, to name a few from his asylum files.

Yet, additional diagnostic labels could help to clarify his overall presentation. One diagnosis that has been put forward is BPD. It does seem to explain some of the events of his life, for example, his heated interpersonal conflicts and fears of abandonment related to Paul Gauguin. However, a diagnosis of autism has not been seriously considered. This is interesting in light of the heightened prevalence of bipolar disorder in autism — an autistic person is as much as 8.5 times more likely to have bipolar disorder than a non-autistic person (this number assumes no intellectual disability and a diagnosis before age 28).1 Another study found that 7% of autistic people also had bipolar disorder.2

As a child Van Gogh was described by his younger sister as “intensely serious and uncommunicative, and walked around clumsily as if in a daze, with his head hung low”, and went on to say that he was like a stranger both to his siblings and to himself. A servant said he was “an odd, aloof child who had queer manners and seemed more like an old man” than a child.3 These are characteristics often ascribed to some autistic children, even poor motor coordination (dyspraxia).

Vincent was deeply intelligent, thoughtful, and demonstrated what seemed like the capacity to be successful, but as a young man he struggled to find a vocation that could accommodate him. He drifted from an art dealership (where he was fired for arguing with buyers), to a teaching job, to a minister’s assistant for a Methodist church, to a bookshop where he reportedly doodled and translated parts of the Bible into English, French, and German, to religious studies. He failed his entrance exam in theology and his missionary course. Religion was a special interest for Van Gogh. He was endlessly devoted and passionate about the subject, but his odd behavior made him an ineffective preacher, and he was not a good student.

Van Gogh had severe social problems which seem to have started early in his life. People repeatedly thought that he was odd, and they didn’t want to be around him. His peculiarities were off-putting. Children were scared of him. Scholars suggest that he did not understand the concepts of diplomacy or salesmanship, that he lacked insight into the thought processes of others, and lacked the ability to cognitively understand their emotions and motivations.3 He was emotionally dysregulated and prone to agitated or impulsive meltdown behaviors. As his interest in painting became more intense and all-consuming, he neglected maintenance of his body or appearance, appearing even more eccentric.

One of the highlights of Van Gogh’s medical files that has yet to be parsimoniously explained is his chronic stomach issues. In particular, gastrointestinal problems seem to be an important feature of autism4 although bipolar disorder may also be related to stomach problems.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853 – 1890 ), Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Finally, there’s the most obvious trait of Van Gogh’s: his artistic ability. Many people have suggested that Vincent might have had some form of synesthesia. Further, I hypothesize that hue discrimination may, like pitch discrimination, be enhanced in some autistic people.5

A diagnosis of autism didn’t exist in Van Gogh’s time — in fact, wouldn’t exist for over 50 years after his death. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that the autism connection has been overlooked. Vincent van Gogh’s wild, reckless nature combined with intellectual and artistic sensibilities (and lack of mathematical talent) defies narrow stereotypes of autism, yet embodies a certain reality of it: he was thoughtful yet lacked insight, seen as a stranger by the world around him while experiencing the world as fundamentally strange, and possessed incredible gifts yet was understood as deficient. Maybe it’s time to look beyond famous scientists and mathematicians for autistic historical figures.

References

1. Selten J-P, Lundberg M, Rai D, Magnusson C. Risks for nonaffective psychotic disorder and bipolar disorder in young people with autism spectrum disorder: A population-based study. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015;72(5):483-489. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.3059

2. Skokauskas N, Frodl T. Overlap between autism spectrum disorder and bipolar affective disorder. Psychopathology. 2015;48(4):209-216. doi:10.1159/000435787

3. Butterfield, B. The Troubled Life of Vincent Van Gogh. Vincent van Gogh website. September 21, 2002. Accessed May 24, 2020.
http://www.geocities.com/Paris/Louvre/9633/VincentVanGogh.htm

4. Adams JB, Johansen LJ, Powell LD, Quig D, Rubin RA. Gastrointestinal flora and gastrointestinal status in children with autism – comparisons to typical children and correlation with autism severity. BMC Gastroenterol. 2011;11. doi:10.1186/1471-230X-11-22

5. Heaton P, Williams K, Cummins O, Happé F. Autism and pitch processing splinter skills: A group and subgroup analysis. Autism. 2008;12(2):203-219. doi:10.1177/1362361307085270


What do mixed episodes feel like?

For me, mixed episodes are the worst part of my bipolar disorder. It’s hard for people without bipolar disorder to comprehend how it could be that you feel mania and depression at the same time. It doesn’t have to be simultaneous, per se — it could just be very quickly alternating — but for me it is, at times, simultaneous.

In actuality, mixed episodes aren’t rare. The most common presentation of bipolar 1 disorder is a combination of depression and mixed episodes (32%), followed by the combination of depression and manic episodes (30%; Grant et al., 2005). Mixed episodes are also common in bipolar 2 disorder (Benazzi et al., 2004) although, understandably, these tend more towards the depression side.

To understand my own mixed episodes, I draw a distinction between physical and mental energy. Mania typically involves high levels of both physical and mental energy: you feel physically great, you never seem to get tired, and your thoughts and ideas might be racing around in your head. In contrast, depression involves low physical and mental energy: you’re tired and sluggish, you might be in pain, and your thoughts feel jammed like a printer that just won’t print.

Your brain on depression.

My own mixed episodes tend to feature low physical energy and high mental energy. I can’t sleep at night because my thoughts keep me awake, but instead of feeling ready to go in the morning, I feel tired and miserable. I may pace around because of all the energy inside my head, but my body aches constantly. I tend to become very preoccupied with suicide. Mixed episodes are the most dangerous time for me.

I also might have hallucinations during mixed episodes, and they’re distinctly unpleasant. One that recurs for me is the bugs. I start out by feeling them crawling on my skin, particularly when I lie down in bed to try and sleep at night. No matter how many times I meticulously check my pillow, I can’t find any bugs, but I know they’re there (and know they’re not there — simultaneously). At times, though, this has progressed further to actually seeing bugs everywhere around my apartment, and not being able to tell which are real and which are imagined (because there probably were some real bugs). I once came to the conclusion that not all of the bugs could be real because there were simply too many different species living in my studio apartment. On another occasion, I heard voices mocking me from inside my dishwasher.

Other times, I acquire some delusional or near-delusional beliefs. I have been absolutely convicted that I had AIDS in one instance, Parkinson’s disease in another. I don’t have either of these diseases, but I couldn’t be dissuaded from my belief, at least in the moment. When I believed I had AIDS, I even started writing goodbye letters.

Though I’ve never departed too far from reality, personally — just wandered a little bit astray. I’ve been underwater, but always close enough to see the light on the surface. Some people experience psychosis in a much more encompassing way. Hallucinations and delusions can be truly terrifying, even life-changing experiences. Mine seem a bit mundane in comparison. No angels, no demons… just bugs.

To my horror, I’ve probably seen most of these at some point.

One could also envision a mixed episode with high physical energy and low mental energy. This might result in a kind of catatonic state, probably an agitated catatonia. This is considered a very dangerous state in its own right because catatonic patients are less than fully conscious of their actions, and if they are very agitated, they could pose a risk to themselves and others around them.

Do you have mixed episodes? How do you understand them?


Benazzi, F. (2007). Bipolar disorder — focus on bipolar II disorder and mixed Benazzi, F., Koukopoulos, A., & Akiskal, H. S. (2004). Toward a validation of a new definition of agitated depression as a bipolar mixed state (mixed depression). European Psychiatry, 19(2), 85–90. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eurpsy.2003.09.008

Grant, B. F., Stinson, F. S., Hasin, D. S., Dawson, D. A., Chou, S. P., Ruan, W. J., & Huang, B. (2005). Prevalence, correlates, and comorbidity of bipolar I disorder and axis I and II disorders: Results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 66(10), 1205–1215. https://doi.org/10.4088/JCP.v66n1001


Memory in bipolar disorder

People with bipolar disorder commonly have memory problems. This is actually something I’ve been doing research about as a PhD student at UCLA. Not only that, it’s something I struggle with myself.

There are two main categories of memory problems in bipolar disorder: problems that are associated with a mood episode, and problems that exist outside of mood episodes (during euthymia, or well periods).

During episodes of depression, problems with explicit memory are common. That’s the kind of memory you’re using when you try to recall facts or events — in contrast to implicit memory, which includes emotional learning (conditioning) and procedural learning (like learning how to ride a bicycle). Implicit memory tends to be preserved, but depressed people struggle to explicitly remember things. For example, trying to remember the names of past presidents might become extremely effortful. This is actually the same for unipolar depressives. Controlling for the severity of depression symptoms, bipolar and unipolar depressives are very similar in the area of memory performance (Bearden et al., 2006).

Multiplication tables might be very difficult for a depressed person to recall

Memory impairments are more pervasive in manic episodes. Research has found that during a manic episode, people perform more poorly at tasks requiring episodic memory (the kind of memory you use when you remember a scene you’ve lived through, typically from a first-person perspective), working memory, spatial attention, and problem solving (Sweeney et al., 2000). Many people who have experienced manic episodes have a great deal of difficulty remembering what happened during the episode. It’s possible that mania disrupts the encoding of new memories (King et al., 2013). For some of us, this is a double-edged sword: it’s painful to remember, and yet it’s painful not to remember. Sometimes we’re left trying to piece together what actually happened while simultaneously part of us is trying to move on from it. Even worse, sometimes other people remember better than you do.

Problems with episodic memory aren’t limited to mania, though.

Various studies have shown bipolar people who are euthymic (not currently having a mood episode) to perform poorly at memory-related tasks. Problems with executive functioning frequently come up — these problems can be similar to people with ADHD. But one of the most noteworthy findings is impairment in episodic memory about one’s own life. In particular, it seems like memory for specific events is impaired, but memory for personal facts (like one’s name or birthday) are not affected (Shimizu et al., 2009).

It’s hard for me to remember a lot of things I’ve lived through. Not infrequently I meet people who tell me we’ve met before, but I have no idea who they are. I have friends that I don’t remember how or where we met. Even memories I’d like to keep seem not to stick very well, which is saddening. I forget most of what happens after a year or two. Sometimes the things I do remember are a little strange. According to my psychiatrist, I have an incredible ability to know exactly how many times she’s told me the same story in the past, but I don’t remember the contexts I heard it in.

I feel like my psychiatrist would relate to this

One study (King et al., 2013) found that when they asked bipolar disorder patients to recall memories from their life, they were more likely to recall those memories from a third-person or observer perspective. It makes me wonder why that is. It’s like the people with bipolar disorder can’t remember being in their own head, even if they can “see” what happened in their memory. Something is disconnected between their past and present minds. They specifically can’t remember being themselves.

Bipolar disorder can be so much more than having emotional “ups” and “downs”. For some people bipolar disorder affects us every day and changes how we live life. Many people don’t realize how memory problems can affect us. When I write, I write about the present at least as much as I write about the past, because I know how transient the present really is.

Have you ever experienced something like this?


Bearden, C. E., Glahn, D. C., Monkul, E. S., Barrett, J., Najt, P., Villarreal, V., & Soares, J. C. (2006). Patterns of memory impairment in bipolar disorder and unipolar major depression. Psychiatry Research, 142(2–3), 139–150. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2005.08.010

King, M. J., Macdougall, A. G., Ferris, S., Herdman, K. A., Bielak, T., Smith, J. R. V, … Mckinnon, M. C. (2013). Impaired episodic memory for events encoded during mania in patients with bipolar disorder. Psychiatry Research, 205(3), 213–219. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2012.08.005

Shimizu, M., Kubota, Y., Mason, R., Baba, H., Calabrese, J. R., & Toichi, M. (2009). Selective Deficit of Autobiographical Incident Memory in Subjects with Bipolar Disorder. Psychopathology, 42, 318–324. https://doi.org/10.1159/000232974

Sweeney, J. A., Kmiec, J. A., & Kupfer, D. J. (2000). Neuropsychologic impairments in bipolar and unipolar mood disorders on the CANTAB neurocognitive battery. Biological Psychiatry, 48(7), 674–684. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0006-3223(00)00910-0


Best books for people diagnosed with bipolar disorder

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, my therapist gave me a book that changed my life. Books can influence how you understand your own bipolar disorder, and yourself in relation to it. I haven’t read every single book out there, but here are a few that I have read.

Welcome to the Jungle by Hilary Smith

Technically, this is a self-help book. It contains a lot of good information, tips, and recommendations. The thing I like about this book in particular is its humorous and lighthearted style. I read the original edition of this book, and I no longer have it because I gave it to someone else, but I still remember some of the bipolar jokes! I recommend this book to anyone who has just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder but doesn’t know much about it, and needs a source of information.

Manic by Terri Cheney

Manic is a memoir. Memoir can be so helpful, in my opinion, because it allows us to have insight into the lives of people who have faced similar struggles as us. This book describes itself as “visceral” — focused on the experience of mania and depression from a very subjective viewpoint. Cheney herself said the focus is “on what bipolar disorder felt like inside my own body”. Paradoxically, it becomes very relatable by just how idiosyncratic it is. I recommend this book to anyone who feels alone in their struggles with bipolar disorder.

An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison

This is the book that changed my life. As a freshman in college, it single-handedly inspired me to pursue a career in research, and specifically bipolar disorder — which is now my career. Jamison is an authority on bipolar disorder, but this book is not a textbook — it’s a memoir. In a display of great vulnerability (at the time, nobody could know if this book would end her career) Jamison tells the story of her life, from childhood to a breakdown shortly after completing graduate school, mania, psychosis, depression, and a serious suicide attempt. Throughout it all, Jamison interjects wisdom and knowledge. This book simultaneously provides both deep information about bipolar disorder and a revealing look into the life of somebody who lives with it. I would recommend it to anyone who with a curious mindset, who wants to know more about the science of bipolar disorder and the culture of academic psychiatry, as well as the personal experience of living with bipolar disorder from the perspective of an expert.

Have you read any good books about bipolar disorder? Feel free to leave a comment!


Should I be afraid to take lithium?

Lithium has a reputation. When I was first prescribed it, I felt a sense of fear and also — somehow — a sense of achievement, like I had won the lottery for crazy. When you hear about lithium, it’s often to stress that it is only for those top shelf mental illnesses; and it is good for that, however, it’s not necessarily true that you’re on the top shelf just because you’re starting lithium. A lot of people take lithium. On some occasions it might be the first medication tried. There are a few things to know about lithium in order to make truly informed choices about what you’re getting into.

It’s highly effective

Lithium is one of the most effective medications for bipolar disorder. Which medication is the best varies by person, and a lot of people have success with anticonvulsants like Lamictal. But for many people, the most effective medication is lithium, and its effectiveness has been well-documented for many years (it was first used in psychiatry in 1949). According to one study, about 30% of people who try lithium witness a complete recovery, while 60% see some improvement.

Unlike some other medications, lithium isn’t just a treatment for symptoms of mania; it actually prevents future mood episodes. Relapses become less frequent and shorter. There is some evidence that lithium has a protective effect in the brain.

Lithium has a decent chance of working for any type of bipolar disorder, but there are some people in particular who are very likely to be lithium responders. Those people tend to have:

  • Fewer hospitalizations prior to starting lithium
  • Later age of onset
  • An episodic course (moods cycle and then resolve for a while, as opposed to chronic cycling)
    • About 44% of people with an episodic course have complete remission on lithium, compared to 15% of people with a non-episodic (chronic) course.
    • In one study, 90% of lithium responders who experienced full recovery had complete remission of mood symptoms in between episodes before starting lithium.
  • Mania occurs before depression (mood cycling starts with mania)
  • Strong family history of bipolar disorder and/or a family history of lithium responsiveness
    • One study found that 35% of patients without a family history of lithium response had a complete recovery (similar to other studies mentioned), but among those with a family history of lithium response, that number jumped up to 67% full recovery.

Yes, you’ll get blood drawn

The dosage of lithium is based on how much lithium is in your blood, not how many milligrams are in the pill. The therapeutic window (the space in between the effective dose and the toxic dose) for lithium is much more narrow than most other drugs, so you’ll have to get blood tests frequently, especially when you’re still trying to figure out what dose is best for you.

If you’re afraid of needles, you will probably overcome that fear.

Because lithium blood levels are the most important factor in dosage, it’s probably pointless to try comparing doses with any bipolar friends. Their minimum and maximum dose is probably different than your minimum and maximum dose, so you’re working with two different scales. The middle of their dose range isn’t the middle of your dose range.

Side effects

No doubt, lithium has side effects. The good news is that if you find a low dose is effective for you, you might experience few or no side effects. If you’re on a high dose, it’s more likely that you’ll experience some side effects. These could include:

  • Hand tremors. This can make your handwriting different, and makes it very hard to put Jello in the fridge.
  • Nausea and vomiting. This tends to happen at quite high doses, and it may be a sign that your dose is too high; however, switching to the extended release version of lithium may help.
    • It’s worth noting that your dose can get too high for a variety of reasons, including dehydration; taking ibuprofren or other NSAIDs (you should probably switch to using acetominophen); or climbing a mountain and reaching a very high altitude. That last one hasn’t happened to me personally.
    • If you do actually vomit, it might be very aggressive vomiting and it always seems to come on suddenly.
  • Brain fog. Attention and memory problems come naturally to bipolar disorder, but lithium makes them worse. You may feel that your brain is just working really slowly, and it’s hard to concentrate or read. (Some people also have visual distortions on lithium that make reading even more difficult. I find it easier to read large print.)

In conclusion

Many people are afraid to take lithium, but some experts argue that it’s actually under-used today due to the public perception of it. So, in my opinion, it’s certainly worth trying. Most people won’t experience too many problems; if you’re on a high dose, you might experience some weird stuff, but to me it’s worth it for reducing my mood symptoms, and all of the weird stuff is manageable if you make some small adjustments to your life.

References

Tighe, S. K., Mahon, P. B., & Potash, J. B. (2011). Predictors of lithium response in bipolar disorder. Therapeutic advances in chronic disease2(3), 209–226. https://doi.org/10.1177/2040622311399173


Who gets bipolar disorder?

People of all ages, all around the world get bipolar disorder. It doesn’t seem to discriminate in regards to gender or ethnicity. But there are some factors that make some people more likely to get a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

People with a Family History

Bipolar disorder is genetic. In fact, the evidence suggests it is the most strongly genetic disorder in the DSM — its genetic component is larger than schizophrenia or autism, which themselves are thought to be very heritable. Accordingly, the best predictor of bipolar disorder is a family history of bipolar disorder. And the more people in your family who have it, the more your risk increases.

Psychiatrists typically always elicit a family history if possible, and a positive family history is very suggestive of a bipolar diagnosis.

Young Adults

Bipolar disorder usually appears early in adult life (although, more rarely, children can have it). Traditionally, the average age of onset is estimated between 20 and 25 years old. Some research now suggests that the actual “age of onset” — the age that symptoms first appear — is actually between 15 and 19 years old, but there is an average delay of 6 years between symptom onset and diagnosis.

I got my symptoms early (around 10 years old) and received my diagnosis at 17. People with an early age of onset tend to have more depression, but not more mania, than people with a later age of onset. They also experience more mood instability, rapid cycling, and on average they have a greater number of suicide attempts.

These differences might appear because, if you compare two people of the same age — one of them with early onset, and one of them with later onset — the early onset individual has had bipolar disorder longer. Another explanation is genetic anticipation; basically, if you have more people in previous generations of your family with bipolar disorder, the genes that cause it accumulate in the later generations. This produces both an earlier age of onset and more severe symptoms.

People with Depression

It may seem intuitive, since depression is part of bipolar disorder, but many people have depression before they have mania (a little over 50%). In that case, at first it may appear that they simply have depression. It can be hard to tell the difference.

There are a few factors that tip the scales in the favor of bipolar disorder, though: a family history; a tendency to oversleep when depressed; depression that occurs in recurring bouts. Also, many bipolar people experience mania or rapid cycling as a response to antidepressant medications (such as SSRIs). For some, this is the first clue that they have underlying bipolar disorder.