We have to admit that we’re out of the loop when it comes to the traits of genuine geniuses. The only genius types we here at TVWriter™ deal with are showbiz geniuses, and, erm, they’re a whole different breed. (Quick, what’s the difference between Albert Einstein and Kanye? Huh? Huh?
by Ilyana Romanovsky M.A. MFT.
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.