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The Psychopathology of Genius

08/11/2014 10:13 am ET | Updated Oct 11, 2014
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Following the recent and popular article on the "Secrets of the Creative Brain" in The Atlantic magazine issue for the month of July, there has been an increased amount of discussion on where genius comes from and why it is often accompanied by mental illness. The age-old view that genius and madness are linked has its roots in classical Greece. Aristotle believed that, "those who have become eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry, and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia." Seneca stated that, "no great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness." And Socrates said that the poet has "no invention in him until he has been inspired and out of his senses." Around the 19th century, the notion of madness and genius had become all but dogma, and many eminent psychiatrists devoted their lives to studying the pathological traits of genius.

The advent of psychoanalysis reinforced the espoused idea that madness and genius are linked. Sigmund Freud saw creative genius as a sign of neurosis. (1) Indeed, almost any outstanding achievement was suspect to some sort of psychopathology. Leonardo da Vinci, Mary Baker Eddy, Dostoevsky, and Woodrow Wilson were all sick and suffering souls in the eyes of psychoanalysts. The most recent discussion of genius came by way of Nancy Andreasen, chair of psychiatry at the University of Iowa, commenting on mild mania enhancing creativity, and that many of the eminent people in various fields had been manic-depressives. (2) In fact, Martin Luther King's role in history was due in part to his manic and depressive episodes, with Andreasen concluding that "a variety of artists, writers, statesmen, philosophers and scientists have suffered from disorders of the mood."

Despite popular endorsement of the link between genius and madness, the emergence of humanistic psychology in the 1960s saw creativity as a form of mental health. Rather than viewing a genius as a sick and damaged soul, he was one that was most sane. In fact, Abraham Maslow's pyramid to self-actualization looks dramatically different from the perspective that held true for centuries prior. Maslow contended that the most basic physiological needs such as adequate food, water, and sleep must be addressed before someone can have a basic sense of safety. Further on up the pyramid, one cannot have a sense of positive esteem -- which includes self-esteem, confidence, achievement, and respect for and by others -- without first feeling a sense of love and belonging, including friendship, family, and a sense of intimacy. (3) So who is right? Should we reject the historic perspective of genius as madman and embrace the humanistic image of genius as the pinnacle of sanity, or is there some middle ground in the two extremes?

The resolution of this argument can be made by looking through historical records and identifying all the notable figures of time with known mental disorders. Such studies have been conducted, illuminating high percentages of diagnoses in persons considered to be gifted. These percentages may be high enough to cast doubt on the humanistic position. If we are to take these historical diagnoses at face value, we seem to resolve the debate. However, no one should be convinced about the matter according to historical figures alone. Rather than relying on subjective judgements of psychiatrists from years past, there is another way that might corroborate the notion that genius yields madness.

The work at the Berkeley's Institute for Personality Assessment and Research offers one such way. In the past, many notable names have traveled to the institute to take a barrage of personality tests, mainly the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), which contains scales for assessment of personality structure and mental disorders. The results were striking. For example, the pathology of creative writers scored higher on the depression, mania, schizophrenia, paranoia, and health anxiety. Another pattern emerged when creative personalities took the EPQ or the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, scoring higher on the scale for psychosis. (4)

Under close investigation, it does not seem too baffling that creative people would score higher on the psychosis continuum. Many of the traits required for creativity and innovation must defy tradition and accepted norm. The creative cannot be contained by wisdom of the old and persistently overcome many obstacles to reach greatness. Their ideas are often diffuse and lack a coherent sense of connection. For instance, for anyone who is familiar with some of Mozart's correspondences, his letters lack sense and contain a touch of the bizarre.

Have you good digestion? Have you, perhaps congestion? Can you tolerate me, do you think? Do you write with pencil or ink? Do you ever think of me, so far away? You may have been angry, with me, poorzany, but if you will not recognize me I'll make a noise, will scandalize ye! There, you are laughing -- victoria! (5)

Mozart loved to write in such a way as to make sounds with his words versus having them make actual sense. In general, this offbeat way of relating to others, as well as a peculiar thinking style, connects back to the assessed psychopathology of the creative minds that is often linked with psychotic states.

But what of the manic? The traditional view of the genius has origin in ancient Greece. Prometheus, according to Greek mythology, stole fire from the gods and brought it back to mankind. Zeus responded by chaining Prometheus to a mountain as a punishment and condemned him by having his liver eternally devoured by an eagle. The tail of Prometheus becomes a symbol of martyrdom and genius. The myth can additionally symbolize the manic-depressive who was able to bring a great gift to mankind at the expense of a painful and tragic life. It would seem then, that in addition to elements of psychosis, creative minds also gained energy and self-confidence from elevated mood states. For example, when Beethoven's friend Schindler came to visit him while working, Beethoven exhibited utmost signs for being in a manic state:

In the living-room, behind a locked door, we heard the master singing parts of the fugue in the Credo -- singing, howling, stamping. After we had been listening a long time to this almost awful scene, and were about to go away, the door opened and Beethoven stood before us with distorted features, calculated to excite fear. He looked as if he had been in mortal combat with the whole host of conrapuntists, his everlasting enemies. His first utterances were confused, as if he had been disagreeably surprised at our having overheard him. Then he reached the day's happenings and with obvious restraint he remarked "Pretty doings, these, everybody has run away and I haven't had anything to eat since yesternoon! (6)

To address the mania, let's get back to the research out of Berkeley for the personalities of creative minds. Notable figures who took the MMPI consistently scored higher for the ego, which is a Freudian term for an identity of our own construction. This trait and result is significant, as it points to the ability of the ego to hold itself together in spite of the plethora of pathological traits. The creator has an important advantage and that is being his own conductor in the sea of music. It is imperative that a strong ego unifies the whole, as the genius requires a big ego to stay the course of his ambition. The psychotic or the manic can come out and play the piccolo solo every once in a while, as long as the conductor knows how not to let the symphony disintegrate into a cacophony of sounds.

They gifted seem to possess just the right amount of weirdness to come up with offbeat, crazy ideas, but not tip the scales so much so that the ideas take them into oblivion. This fine-tuned connection helps us understand the pedigree isolated to the genius. Evidently, inheriting just the right amount of psychotic and manic proclivity can enhance the odds of the creative.

The insanity of the tragic minority is just the price that society has to pay in order to boast exceptional advancements and rarities in history: Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Copernicus and Edison to name a few. And for those that stand on the edge of emotional stability, derangement may just be the key to presumably reach genius.

Sources:

1. Jones, E. 1953. The life and work of Sigmund Freud: Vol. 1. The formative years and the great discoveries, 1856-1900. New York: Basic Books.

2. Andreasen NC. The Creating Brain: the Neuroscience of Genius. New York: Dana Press, 2005

3. Maslow, A.H. 1959. Creativity in self-actualizing people. In H.H. Anderson, ed., Creativity and its cultivation, 83-95. New York: Harper & Row.

4. Simonton, D. K., 1994. Greatness: Who Makes History and Why. New York: Guildford Press.

5. Mersmann, H., ed. 1928. Letters of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, M.M. Bozman, trans. New York: Dover, 1972.

6. Forbes, E., ed. 1967. Thayer's life of Beethoven, rev. ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.