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What was wrong with Vincent Van Gogh?

DISCLAIMER: the following is not medical or psychological advice.

Vincent Van Gogh is very well-known. A post-impressionist painter from the Netherlands, Vincent Van Gogh was known to suffer from psychological or psychiatric conditions his whole life long. He was known to have had seizures, but there was something else going on as well. His behavior and thoughts were erratic. It is common for highly creative people to have certain psychological issues. But what was wrong with Vincent Van Gogh? Did his condition keep him from being the great artist that he could have been? Or was his condition, whatever it was, fundamental? Was he able to create, not in spite of his problems, but because of them?

One of the foremost theories is that Vincent Van Gogh had temporal lobe epilepsy, which would explain his seizures. If true, then this means that Vincent Van Gogh would have had lesions on his brain that caused him to have seizures. Although the role of the temporal lobe in certain kinds of epilepsy was not known at the time, epilepsy itself was well-known. They didn’t know that the temporal lobe had anything to do with it, but they knew what epilepsy was. Vincent Van Gogh himself thought that he had epilepsy, and so did certain doctors who treated him while he was alive.

Many scholars have thought that Vincent Van Gogh had manic depression, or bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder in the popular mind is frequently associated with creativity and genius. Vincent Van Gogh was known to have long bouts of extreme productivity. In between these bouts of productivity, he would go through long periods of being very tired, sleeping long hours, and being extremely depressed. This back-and-forth between intense productivity and a crash into depression is very characteristic of bipolar disorder, so many people believe that Vincent Van Gogh was bipolar. His frequent mood swings would seem to support this diagnosis, as would his status as a highly creative individual.

Another possible candidate for Vincent Van Gogh’s condition is something called borderline personality disorder. Borderline personality disorder is not a chemical imbalance, like certain kinds of depression. It is also not a brain issue, like temporal lobe epilepsy. Rather, borderline personality disorder is a deeply-ingrained issue in the patient’s personality. Symptoms include impulsivity, promiscuity, mood swings, substance abuse, and sudden, unprovoked rage. Borderline personality disorder fits many of the same diagnostic signs as bipolar, so lots of scholars have done in-depth analysis to figure out which one Van Gogh had. It can be hard to tell them apart because they look so similar.

Another possibility is schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder. Vincent Van Gogh was known to have auditory hallucinations and intermittent psychoses.

While Vincent Van Gogh could have had any number of psychiatric problems, and while they could have had any number of various effects on his art, the fact remains that he was a brilliant painter. That’s why you still see a lot of his work on posters, prints, and art and fantasy t shirts.


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