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Ahora entiendo a Stephen King

Many a writer knows the pain and frustration of writer's block. The looming presence of the blank page, the gripping fear of creative sterility are only too familiar to journalists, poets, diarists or avid pen pals. Few of us, however, have experienced block's bizarre counterpart: hypergraphia. Imagine living with the compulsive need to scrawl away constantly, scribbling on notebooks, napkins, walls, even skin.

"Scientists don't want to discuss creativity," claims Harvard neurologist Dr Alice Flaherty, who both studied and lived with the condition. "It makes them feel intellectually unhygienic."

Her own experience with hypergraphia began when severe postnatal depression took over after she gave birth to premature twin boys who died. Paralysing grief spawned in her an uncontrollable obsession with writing. A year later, in a twist of fate, she gave birth to healthy twin girls. This second, happy pregnancy also resulted in a bout of hypergraphia. Her musings developed into a book she says she could not stop herself from writing. The Midnight Disease, released in the US earlier this year and about to be published in the UK, is a memoir-cum-study of what underlies the human drive to put pen to paper.

"On good days, ideas would wake me at four in the morning," she writes, describing how a computer screen or sheet of paper gave her the same rush that the drug paraphernalia might give a junkie. "On bad days, the words were like a charnel house through which I had to search for the bodies of people I loved."

Hypergraphia is most commonly associated with temporal lobe epilepsy, a type associated with repetitive, automatic movements in a high proportion of cases. First identified by the godfather of modern psychiatry Elim Kraepelin some 100 years ago, hypergraphia has plagued (or blessed, depending on one's perspective) some of our most prolific authors. Fyodor Dostoyevsky was probably a temporal lobe epileptic, as was Vincent van Gogh, who at his peak produced a canvas every 36 hours, writing his brother Theo up to three evocatively detailed six-page letters daily. Sylvia Plath suffered severe PMS, a condition that was known to intensify her bipolar disorder. Not only were many of her grimmest poems written at this point in her menstrual cycle, but she also committed suicide during a particularly difficult spell.

"It's not hypergraphia that makes one creative," argues Dr Peter Whybrow, Director of the Neuro psychiatric Institute of UCLA. "In van Gogh's case, hypergraphia affected and changed his way of painting ... but it didn't spur him to paint."

According to Whybrow, in mania, all behaviour is rushed and acted out in excess. Van Gogh, who had the habit of meticulously planning and sketching his canvases between manic episodes, would paint feverishly and spontaneously during them. Manic depressives with a predisposition to chronicling their lives or composing poetry are likely to engage in voluminous writing in their darkest hours.

The quality of the work produced by such people is purely accidental, says Whybrow. A number of writers as well as researchers might disagree. In her study of manic depression and its links to the artist's temperament, Dr Kay Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at John Hopkins University, established that "Two aspects of thinking are pronounced in both creative and hypomanic thought: fluency, rapidity and flexibility ... and the ability to combine ideas or categories of thought in order to form new and original connections."

Although not a terribly frequent manifestation of temporal lobe epilepsy, when detected it often accompanies an inflated sense of divine inspiration referred to as hyperreligiosity, as well as increased or erratic sexual activity and emotional volatility. Another major cause of hypergraphia is manic depression or bipolar disorder. Although the two illnesses are largely unrelated - the first a neurological disorder, the second a psychiatric one - their overlapping symptoms often mean one is mistaken for the other. Schizophrenics and patients diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia can also experience a compulsive drive to write.

A rudimentary explanation of what compels humans to create can be found in a basic map of the brain. Writing alone involves a combination of several faculties. The cerebral cortex, grey matter comprising the outer layer of the brain, plays a role in the ability to write. Drive is more controlled by the limbic system buried deep under the cortex. The limbic system, most closely related to the temporal lobes located behind the ears, governs emotion and, arguably, inspiration. It's also what regulates our innate need to communicate.

Studies conducted in the past decade found a high proportion of depressive poets, novelists, composers and visual artists when compared to people in non-creative professions. So, is a certain degree of mental instability, a glitch in the brain, necessary to be an artist? Perhaps not. After all, countless mentally and emotionally healthy artists tell us otherwise. Yet many creative people believe their mood or brain disorders facilitate their work. As the writer Robert Burton said: "All poets are mad."

Lesions on the temporal lobe cause TLE. Although it tends to run in the family, there is no known cause of manic depression. In both instances, however, the hypergraphic writer generally does not wish to be cured. In fact, many hypergraphics are quite content with their condition. Unlike writer's block, it isn't painful.

"It felt like a disease: I could not stop," Flaherty writes. "It also felt like one of the best things that has ever happened to me. It still does."

Whybrow believes this viewpoint is a dangerous one. "People do not benefit from severe mental illness," he says, arguing that the artistic ability gained is swapped for "a holistic ability to be human": "Mental illness is not a spur to creativity."

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