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.

14 Responses

  1. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve overheard a conversation between psych patients about the link between madness and genius. I’d have sixteen dollars which I could use right now.

    I think all people at some level or time find the idea of madness a little bit exciting or cute. Don’t we all know some annoying person, usually a “bubbly” female, who loves telling people how crazy she is.

    But the supposed link is taken seriously for some reason by some people. Shrinks like to retrospectively diagnose famous people. I suppose they figure that if they can diagnose a person sitting in front of them in ten minutes, they can diagnose a long dead faraway person in about thirty now that we have the net.

    I’ve read heaps of historical biographies of scientists, artists and rulers. And I’ve met and spoken to about 75,000 people in Melbourne. I’m yet to think that anybody I’ve known anything about has a mental illness.

    • I’ve known people that thought they were special because some doctor had given them a diagnosis. I’ve known people that became fixated with the diagnosis they had been given, and the specialness they attributed to it. I don’t see this specialness so much except in so far as everybody is special.

      Celebrities think they are special, too, but they have the media and a fan base to kiss their little over valued arses. Give everybody 15 minutes of fame, as A. Warhol suggested, and maybe we’d be dealing with the matter in a more equitable fashion. This also means there are an awful lot of celebrities whose time has elapsed, and whose big name star status should be up. It is time then to bring somebody else on.

      The mental health system can be a destructive force. Some people doom themselves by relying too heavily upon it. Doing so can be really detrimental to a persons physical health, too. Getting to a point where one can dispense with the imaginary crutches, and actually leave that system, is a good thing. I always attributed my survival as a more or less intact human being to not listening to the psychiatrist.

  2. Isn’t that BBC article terrible! It’s typical or the type of article that is intended to propagandize and make the reader feel clever at the same time.

    One little example of mind control. (Imagine a middle class family at breakfast. Teenage kids. Dad reading the paper.)

    The article lists some famous people ( Family members are all thinking, “Ooh, I know that name, aren’t I clever.) The list finishes with, “… EVEN Che Guevara.”

    Che Guevara is the odd one out in the list. Most people have heard the name but less frequently than the others. Most people, in fact, know very little about any of the people listed and most know way much less about Che Guevara than the others.

    It’s a subtle mind control trick. It gets a solitary person nodding in agreement to the article because he won’t admit to himself that he knows less about Che Guevara than he does about the others. In a family group or in a lecture it gets a whole bunch of people nodding in agreement with the speaker and with the other people in their vicinity.

    The reader or the listener is semi-distracted from the reason the list was compiled but starts nodding, “Yes, I understand that.”

    I see this everywhere. It’s the old “Get people nodding their heads” trick.

    • Agreed, terrible.

      Maybe Che isn’t so well known in Australia as he is in the rest of the world, but he certainly is well known elsewhere. I figure if this doctor is going to mention Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, he might as well throw in Che Guevara. Che wrote the manual on guerrilla warfare, and then proceeded to earn his Darwin Award by ignoring what he had written. This ignorance may have cost him his life but he gained immortal status thereby as a martyr of the revolution and a legend.

      Yeah, I think the doctor was expecting us to nod in agreement. Thoughtlessly. Problem: a diagnosis of ADHD is not likely to set anyone on the path to stardom or greatness. Its apt to make accomplishments of that sort more challenging actually.

      Ahha! Perhaps a diagnosis of ADHD has something to do with taking the wrong path. (Wrong from the angle of blowing other people away anyway.)

      • Having said that Victoria leads the world in psych diagnoses we are in fact a bit behind in adult ADHD diagnosis. It might be that it doesn’t lend itself to our brutal coercive system as well as bipolar disorder does. We still regard celebrities with enemies amongst the good folk as maniacs.

    ADHD is a legitimate illness. It has a considerable amount of well documented scientific studies backing it up. But it is an illness. It is often a misdiagnosed illness. It is not beneficial. Does any one try to say cancer is a double edged sword? A good illness? What a load of steaming crap?

    Many people legitimately diagnosed with ADHD have good qualities. Like passion, inteligence and creativity. So do many people who do not have ADHD. Assuming these good traits has a link with the illness is just a way to make people feel warm and fuzzy about being labeled or having their children labeled.

    Sure Honest Abe could have had ADHD. But it did not make him a smarter better president. It made him a bad lawyer and a failed business man. It was a liability not a benefit. To suggest otherwise is not rational.


    • You don’t need to convince me. I don’t care. Anyone can buy all the horseshit they want to anytime they want to do so. I’m just not in the market for horseshit. Call it whatever you will. Same thing.

      You’ve got a 4 letter acronym for some quack expert’s mumbo jumbo. Hey, I don’t need to go to school to see through the ruse. The emperor thought his outfit so elegant when he was really naked as a jaybird. Well, ADHD is like the fabric of his garment. Namely, imaginary.

      I’ve heard people mention Abe’s depression, but it’s kind of like yin and yang, isn’t it? He was a shrewd politician, and he gained the White House. Okay. What does this tell you about Abraham Lincoln. I’ll give you a clue. He wasn’t peddled by Planters.

      • So how do you explain away things like the neurobiological study of adults with ADHD in 1990?

        Positron emission tomography was used to study the cerebral glucose metabolism of people with ADHD. When compared to the brains of “normal” people the brains of the subjects with ADHD demonstrated a clear manifestation of reduced metabolism globally and a particularly reduced metabolism in the premotor cortex and the superior prefrontal cortex.

        I am sorry but saying that the condition is imaginary does not explain away the rather substancial body of evidence that exists saying that it is very real. I am curious to know why you are so convinced that it does not exist.

        What legitimate research have you done to verify the non existance of all of the disorders you claim are figments of societies’ imagination? What education/training do you have the would lend even the smallest amount of credibility to the claims you make?

        I have my doubts that you have any form of actual evidence than your own ego that could be used to defend your position.

  4. I don’t have to explain it. Studies require follow up studies. Experiments must be replicated. It’s called the scientific method. Any one study means very little.

    One problem with a lot of research into these matters is that a key element has not been factored into the research. This key element is the part played by ritalin and other stimulants used to treat ADHD in the function of any brain being scanned. You need, in other words, to also look at the brains of people labeled ADHD who are on no drugs and who have never been on any drugs to treat the ‘disorder’. It’s not as simple as saying here are the brains of people with ADHD and here are the brains of ‘normal’ people without ADHD. You need to look at the brains of people labeled ADHD on drugs, the brains of people labeled ADHD without drugs (meds), and the brains of people who have not been labeled ADHD. The drugs used to treat ADHD retard growth in the children and adolescents who take them. I would imagine these drugs also effect the brain in discernable ways.

    The substantial evidence you speak of is minimal. Disciples of ADHD have fabricated a history for their pet disease. When you have one rare and isolated case, that is one thing, when your disorder starts showing up everywhere, that’s another thing. That history of a disorder is one of the rather rare and isolated case, but once it has been given a name, it takes on a life of its own. Doctors get their cases, and drug companies find a whole new market opening up. I suggest that there are healthier things to identify with than cases that come straight out of psychiatric textbooks.

    I have no reason to get defensive. I just suggest that there are other modes of being besides those found in psychiatric textbooks, and detailing behaviors characterized as the symptoms of disease. Any actor knows this. Any actor can study the book and get the role down pat. Any actor can also move onto other roles.

    • While I will not say that I agree with you on every point, you do bring up some valid points.

      I have a great deal of concern over the amount of kids being diagnosed with ADHD. I think the problem is more with parents today than anything else. A combination of factors comes into play.

      1. Parents today want perfect mini adults for children. They expect their children to be able to focus for long periods of time. They expect their children to be calm and always in control. The reality is that kids are kids and expecting them to be anything else is just plain dense.

      2. It has become almost fashionable to have a child with mental illness. “My what a great mommy you are to make sure your child is able to deal with his/her tragic illness.” It allows parents to not only believe that they are good parents it is also a way to earn praise and sympathy from others. It is unfortunate that we have as society gotten to the point where we want our kids to be sick.

      I remember an episode of House (back before it got really bad) where a mom came into the clinic convinced that he daughter had epilepsy. Her daughter was grunting, sweating etc. Mommy had already looked into the special programs, special schools etc. All the stuff that would make her fit the image of the all sacrificing parent. When House told to not get ahead of herself and that her daughter was masturbating she said “that’s horrifying”. House responded “not as horrifying as epilepsy”. I think that little scene really did a good job of reflecting our attitude as a society towards our children and chronic illness.

      I do not agree with you on the disorder not being real. I have struggled my whole life with racing thoughts, inabilty to follow through on things I start, horrible impluse control and defiance of authority. I displayed all of these traits since I was a small child. My parents made every effort they could to try and teach me to manage my behavior. If you have looked at my blog it documents the long term effects of my behavior on my life.

      I was properly diagnosed by a specialist who spent a number of appointments doing his assessment of me (based not only on what I told him but also on a history provided by my spouse and parents). Only when he was convinced I suffered from the disorder did he suggest medication. I was very concerned about the consequences of taking stimulants and only started taking thm reluctantly. It took a while to find the right stimulant and dose but once he did… wow. The racing thoughts almost completely disappeared. The difficulty in making good decisions (impulse control) was made far easier. Combined with good therapy to change habits I am a new man. I no longer seek instant self gratification but instead am able to think long term about the consequnces of my behaviors.

      I have not been forced into any kind of treatment. Every step of the way I was given the option of refusing the recommended treatments if I was not comfortable with the solutions suggested.

      As a father of five beautiful children I can speak to behavioral issues not being merely learned. All five of my kids have their own distinct nature. I have one child that has many of the same problems that I had as a child. I will give her stimulants. I would rather have her short and functional as an adult than have both suffer and cause the suffering that I did throughout my life. There is also new studies that have shown that if you give a child medication holidays, the risk of growth being stunted is almost eliminated.

      Denying the posibility that people can been born with a brain defect that has a behavioral impact is not rational. If genetic defects can be seen in multiple other areas of our body (Huntingtons, Lupus, etc) is not reasonable to claim that we cannot have defects in our heads that create behavioral symptons.

      I do appreciate your response. Like I said.. you brought up a number of valid points.


      • One thing, I would differentiate between defects in the brain and defects in the head. When the disease is all in the head, so to speak, it can’t have such a substantial existence. Just think of the example of Sigmund Freud who spent so much time trying to help hysterics, and the way some of these hysterics exhibited symptoms was psychosomatically. That is, you have man or woman who thinks he or she is deaf who is not actually deaf.

        I’m glad you’ve managed to raise a family, and that it’s members are doing so well, despite any psychiatric label you may have received. Good going.

  5. Thanks.

    I can live with the label. It is only a label because society chooses to stigmatize people who they do not view as fitting into their definition of normal.

    The brain/mind/head philosophical debate I will save for another time.

    I know I have something different about my biology that makes me make choices that are more focused on instant self gratification than on long term consequences. I also know it is my responsibility to figure out how to manage that. I am not about to let any doctor, institution or government control how I do that.

    Thanks… but it is my wife that deserves the recognition for holding our family together through the shit storm I dragged them all through.

    Have a good one…

    • I will try…

      You wife sounds like quite the woman. Sometimes, its true, someone is there with the fortitude of a rock to help a person weather the storm. You’re lucky to have her.

      • You have no idea…

        Married for almost 15 years. 5 kids. Has managed to resist the urge to kill me or divorce my sorry ass. I have no idea where I would be without her. Probably homeless or dead.


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