Suprasensory: David Spindler, the Australian Amateur Golf Champion in the early 1990s said that when he was manic he “saw the lie of the course, crystal clear.” Photo: Sylvia Liber
Smells are smellier. Colours are brighter. Hearing is sharper. And, if you’re lucky, your golf game will go through the roof. Welcome to the strange, suprasensory world of bipolar II, where mental illness is a portal into a heightened realm.
”It’s truly intriguing,” says Professor Gordon Parker, founder of the Black Dog Institute. ”It may also be one of the few good stories to come out of this area.”
I saw every blade of grass and knew what kind of spin they would put on the ball.
A psychiatrist and lecturer at UNSW, Parker specialises in mood disorders, such as bipolar, where individuals swing between florid highs and crushing lows. For some time he has observed many of his bipolar patients describing periods of absolute sensory clarity – they can literally hear a pin drop or smell food hours after the source has been removed. Colours and patterns are extraordinarily vivid and they can ”see” different musical sounds within a piece of music.
”One of my patients is able to smell toast burning 30 seconds before anybody else in the room,” Professor Parker says. Another man, a prominent rugby league player, told Parker that ”when he is on a high he can see openings in the backline that no-one else can see.”
Professor Parker’s research, to be published next month in the American Journal of Psychiatry, provides a glimpse into the parallel world of bipolar disorder, where sufferers report heightened hearing (”Instruments don’t flow into each other; I hear each separately”), and vision (”colours and edges are amplified”).
”These patients have usually not told anyone, for fear of being diagnosed as psychotic,” Professor Parker says.
Such suprasensory enhancement can have benefits. ”When I was ‘on’, no-one could beat me,” says golfer and bipolar patient, David Spindler, who was Australian Amateur Champion in the early 1990s. ”When I was manic, I saw the lie of the course, crystal clear; I could see air pockets the ball would travel through, I saw every blade of grass and knew what kind of spin they would put on the ball.”
Spindler later caddied on the PGA tour for Mark O’Meara and Paul Casey, among others. ”I know for a fact that my advice was better when I was on high, my senses were more acute,” he says.
Bipolar people have long been over-represented in creative fields, says Professor Parker, such as writing, the arts, and stand-up comedy. ”When people go high, their levels of dopamine also go high, and dopamine is the novelty neurotransmitter. It has to do with freeing up connections; it also helps with empathy, and in reading non-verbal interactions more percipiently.”
One patient told Professor Parker of waiting at a bus stop late at night: ”A car passed and I sensed something and told my friend we should run and hide in the bushes Five minutes later the car came back and four men got out with baseball bats, but they failed to spot us. I don’t know what I sensed from the car simply driving by.”