The blog Neurophilosophy is sporting an item on Vincent Van Gogh and the history of “manic-depression” (as we once called it). The first half of the piece gives a basic outline of some of the contributions to psychiatry of Emil Kraepelin, who is often credited with having established the basic taxonomy of mental illnesses that continues to be used, in considerably expanded and revised form, to the present day. (Thanks to the Mind Hacks feature “Spike Activity” for pointing me to this item.)
Linked to the Neurophilosophy piece is a beautifully illustrated webpage entitled “The Troubled Life of Vincent Van Gogh” by Bonnie Butterfield of California State University at San Bernardino.
3 thoughts on “Van Gogh and the History of Manic Depression”
Thanks for this interesting post! Kay Redfield Jamison, who writes about Van Gogh in her book Touched with Fire, prefers the term “manic-depressive illness” to “bipolar disorder” (see also her account of her own experience with this disorder, An Unquiet Mind) because the latter term suggests only the two extremes, depression and mania. This omits the “mixed” states that many people with the disorder experience–i.e., high energy and very negative emotions, a combination that makes the person especially prone to suicide.
The problem with making diagnoses on people based on historical documents is that you are never sure what the documents leave out. While bipolar disorder seems a good guess for someone like Vincent Van Gogh, we can never be exactly sure what was going on in his head or what other symptoms he was experiencing that didn’t get recorded. That’s what make diagnosis of historical figures so tricky.
Naturally, I agree that retrospective diagnosis is a difficult business. Even more than the problem of incomplete symptom reports is whether our current diagnostic categories have (the same) meaning in centuries past, or to what degree they are constructions informed by current concerns. Nevertheless, I thought this was an interesting item, in part because it employed the historical term for Van Gogh’s troubles — manic-depression — rather than the current term — bipolar disorder.
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