With every hour passing, medicine and human sciences make fascinating steps that build up to extend the bridge between us and the secrets of the absolute wonder created by God which is our human brain.
Today, research in the field of mental illnesses is nonstop. People who suffer from mental sicknesses including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Schizophrenia, Autism, Bipolar Disorder and many others have been subject to neurologists’ and psychologists’ zealous studies.
Let’s take a moment to ask ourselves, are people who suffer from such diseases really underprivileged? Is it a completely dark state with no way out or a glimmer of hope? The answer is a definite negative.
Why, you ask? It’s because as much as these illnesses hold of pain and turmoil for the patients; it also holds a great, unmistakable deal of positive traits that can lead the patient to discover the genius within him/her.
In every culture, there exists a widespread stereotype known as “The Tortured Artist”. This kind of intellect, according to the stereotype, often feels alienated and misunderstood by the society which doesn’t appreciate him/her or what he/she does. The tortured artist is always ridden by inner conflicts and feelings of frustration and insufficiency.
However; the notion of a link between “madness” and “genius” goes way back as ancient as the time of Aristotle. During the Romantic era in Europe, toward the end of the 18th century, this idea of art and psychotic patients was reinforced. Individuals with mental issues were believed to have the capacity to see the world in a new, unusual and original way, in other words, to see things that normal humans cannot.
Geniuses with Neurological Disorders
Examples of intellects responsible for historic creative achievements, famous or not, are all around us. Ludwig van Beethoven, the famous German musician suffered from bipolar disorder, yet he possessed such creative power that allowed him to compose pieces that changed classical music forever. He was a child prodigy, although he had “manic” episodes that seemed to fuel his creativity.
During times of psychological torment and extreme suffering, he wrote fantastic pieces. It took him 12 years to finish his last 9th Symphony while he suffered from deafness!
Another example is John Forbes Nash, American Nobel Prize Winner in mathematics, who suffered from Schizophrenia. His life story and life-long battle was documented in the book “A Beautiful Mind,” by Sylvia Nasar, which was later made into a movie of the same name.
British Autistic architectural artist, Stephen Wiltshire, was able to draw the Manhattan skyline only from his photographic memory after a helicopter flight over the city. He was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, and has an unusually powerful photographic memory that he has applied to rendering cityscapes, like London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Rome, Madrid, Frankfurt, Dubai, and Jerusalem.
There are many other examples, like Isaac Newton, the English physicist who is considered to be one of the most influential scientists, suffered from Bipolar Disorder, Vincent Van Gogh, the famous Dutch painter had clinical depression, and Sylvia Plath, the great American writer, who also suffered from clinical depression and suicidal tendencies. And the list goes on.
Such numerous illustrations of the undeniable link between genius and madness lead us to think that there must be a biological connection between these tormented yet brilliant minds.
A study by Arnold Ludwig, a professor of Psychiatry at the University of Kentucky, explored how mental illness is linked with an individual’s influence on society.
Ludwig examined the lives of 1,004 well-known individuals through history, which confirmed that there was a noticeably higher existence of mental illness in individuals who were poets, fiction writers, visual artists, musicians and composers, and those involved in theatre, than in other professions, such as business, exploration, or the military. Many studies like this were conducted, however; they lacked evidence as to how creativity and mental illness are connected.
It is important to point out that while a connection exists between these two traits, it is not always present. Creativity can exist without mental illness, and vice versa.
Biological Story Behind it
To be able to legitimately prove their findings, researchers started to identify the neurological similarities between mental illnesses and the creative thought process.
The frontal lobe of the brain, which is the main connection between the temporal and parietal lobes, is where knowledge and concepts are kept. Unnatural occurrences in the frontal lobe, the prefrontal cortex in particular, are characteristics of schizophrenia and depression.
Hyperactivity in this part causes the patient to initiate unusual connections between normally unrelated things or ideas, in turn simulating the delusions of the paranoid schizophrenic or maniac behavior. Schizophrenia is linked to high levels of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, causing delusions, hallucinations, and chaotic thought processes.
Similarly, manic depression may involve varying levels of norepinephrine in the frontal lobe; high levels of which are responsible for depression symptoms, while low levels result in novel connectivity in the frontal lobe, and creative or unusual ideas.
According to numerous medical studies, creative thinking, like manic depression and schizophrenia, also involves unusual frontal lobe behavior. Frontal lobe deficiency may decrease idea production.
Similarly, another study supports the ones mentioned above and further proves that unusual activity in the frontal lobe could be responsible for interference of the information stored in the parietal and temporal lobes in innovative ways.
Mentally-disordered Minds Benefit their Societies
Even though, it’s philosophically and medically proven that a lot of individuals with psychological problems can develop or already have astonishing talents, the culture of trying to help those patients by uncovering their talents is scarcely spread in our world, and they’re automatically believed to be destined to be underprivileged – without a positive output of their illness.
There are many ways through which we can help lessen the amount of suffering these patients go through and help them find a bright side to their illness. Doctors need to focus more on developing the hidden talents inside those patients’ brains instead of just relying on pills and medication that might hinder the creative thought process that could hold potential of lots of special things those patients can do.
The research in the field of neuropsychology never stops, in hopes that in the soon future, we will be able to give and receive more from the mentally-ill.
- DesignBoom.com, “Stephen Wiltshire draws Manhattan skyline from Memory”, Oct 2009.
- FindingOptimism.com, “Art by the Famous Mentally Ill”.
- Stanford Journal of Neuroscience, “Mental Illness and Creativity: A Neurological View of the “Tortured Artist”, Adrienne Sussman 2007.
- African Mental Health Foundation, “Famous People and Mental Illness”.
- CBS News, “9 Amazng Autistic Artists with Savant Syndrome”, 2012.
This article was first published in 2012 and is currently republished for its uniqueness.