On The Connection of Madness to Genius

Two more articles have just appeared that would link mental illnesses with genius. You will get no long pause from me here over the subject; I’ve got more important matters to get excited about. Mental illnesses have long been linked to individualism and non-conformity, too, but no one pays too much attention to that factor of the phenomenon. The articles I am referring deal with specific mental disorders. One deals with, I’m sure you’ve seen this kind of thing before, bipolar disorder, while the other concerns, not so much the same thing, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

I’d like to point out that the neuroleptic drugs often used to treat bipolar disorder would tend to serve as an antidote to this kind of over achievement. These drugs suppress dopamine activity in the brain, and the neurotransmitter dopamine has much to do with human motivation. If a patient appears listless, lethargic, and largely unmotivated, there’s a fair chance that the drugs that the patient is taking may have something to do with this state of affairs. A tendency exists in fact to confuse the effects of these drugs with the symptoms of any disease the person taking them is impugned to have developed. Should an over achiever visit the psychiatrists office, the psychiatrist then has the power, if utilized, to cure this over achiever of his or her over achieving.

First the article on bipolar disorder, High achievers more likely to be bipolar, involves a study of high school students in Sweden.

The national cohort study was carried out by scientists from King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. The team, led by King’s College senior lecturer in psychiatric epidemiology, Dr James MacCabe, studied the final exam results of all 15-16-year-old pupils attending High Schools in Sweden from 1988 to 1997, and compared them to hospital records of bipolar disorder admissions of patients between the ages of 17 and 31.

Grade A students apparently may be neglecting other areas of their lives.

They found those with A-grade results were almost four times more likely to be admitted for the condition than average students, even after the findings were controlled for income and education level of the parents. The link was stronger in males than females. They also found students with low exam grades had a greater risk of developing bipolar disorder than average pupils.

The names of artists Vincent van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Wolf were dropped as possible bipolar disorder sufferers.

Note: this study doesn’t just find high achievers at risk; it’s the low achievers who are at risk, too, according to the study results. If you’re a C student I guess you can breathe a huge sigh of relief. The heading of the article itself is something of a half-truth.

The other article, Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder link to genius, in the BBC, concerns the beliefs of a certain Professor Michael Fitzgerald who credits ADHD cases with the ability to ‘hyper-focus’.

He starts by dropping the names of Jules Verne and Mark Twain as examples of high achieving ADHD candidates. By the end of the article this club includes the likes of Lord George Byron, Kurt Cobain, Pablo Picasso, Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Edison, Oscar Wilde, James Dean, Clark Gable, and Ernesto Che Guevara.

“The same genes that are involved in ADHD can also be associated with risk-taking behaviour.

“While these urges can be problematic or even self-destructive – occasionally leading people into delinquency, addiction, or crime, they can also lead to earth-shattering breakthroughs in the fields of the arts, science, and exploration.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George Orwell, and Andy Warhol, this article goes on to say, received mention from a 2004 book by Professor Fitzgerald as possible Autism Spectrum Disorder cases. I’ve always thought something smelled a little fishy about diagnoses being made on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum, and this kind of a crazy leap doesn’t make me feel any more secure about those diagnoses.

I don’t really see any reason here for so much as the raising of a single incredulous eyebrow. I just wonder, in many of these cases, whether the abilities of the people so named would have survived intact had they received a diagnosis and treatment for any such disorder in their own time.

I also thought it more than a little queer, if not downright misogynist, that Professor Fitzgerald wasn’t able to come up with a few female names.

I think some of our Professors are star struck.

Although Professor Fitzgerald’s aim is positive, and involves that of seeing an advantagous angle to ADHD as opposed to the more conventional disadvantagous view, I don’t think this type of thinking would necessarily encourage any high achiever of notoriety to seek some kind of psychiatric help for the brain disease suffered from. On the other hand, maybe a few academics have been working too hard for a few too many hours lately, and are under a great deal of pressure. Perhaps they are approaching the verge of nervous exhaustion and collapse. Maybe a vacation is the order of the day. I would just like to recommend that they lay off the biographies and memoirs of celebrated figures for a spell lest it aggravate their conditions.