Madness and Creativity, at the World Science Festival

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“Madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets, as sanity does.”
— Virginia Woolf

To understand the correlation between madness and genius, I went to see a sociopath, a bipolar, and a schizophrenic: neuroscientist James Fallon, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, and mental health law professor Elyn Saks, respectively. The panel, part of this year's World Science Festival, was moderated by award-winning, fashionably blonde news anchor, Cynthia McFadden — who I'm convinced would be the first of the four to murder someone should an opportunity arise: the smooth Barbie-doll news anchorism? That surface has got to crack.

Cynthia McFadden, our moderator

So what did I learn? First, that the conversation doesn't quite live up to the panel name unless we converse directly with Virgina Woolf, John Keats, Edgar Allen Poe, and David Foster Wallace. You best follow Grammy-winning Irish singer Susan McKeown, who was there to sing songs she'd adapted from poems about depression, and look for a revealing dialogue in the works of mad geniuses themselves. We do know, however, that a correlation exists: a study in Sweden revealed that out of 700,000 school children tested before the age of 16 and again 10 years later, kids who'd shown higher intelligence were four times as likely to develop a bipolar disorder later in life — though to my very scientific mind, it seems like a percentage of young Swedes would end up losing their minds no matter what. We also know that among creative geniuses, like Virginia Woolf, a lineage of madness is traceable into their past; that overall, there are high incidents of neuropsychological deficits and intelligence co-habitating, unhappily.

However, Kay — who survived a suicide as a young adult and didn't think she'd live past 30, and Elyn — who as a student at Oxford assumed everyone else heard voices, both confirm that “creativity” isn't produced during an attack; it's only after they've resurfaced to normalcy that they're able to reflect, process and express. Elyn's friends have observed that she often makes associations that seem unavailable to healthy minds, because inhibited by logic. Creativity, after all, seems to be a push and pull with the rational, and the wiring that allows us to function better in the world by limiting stimuli also happens to obstruct our mind from some creative experiences: “and that is why artists need agents,” James reminds us.

Kay Redfield Jamison, the sweet one, has bipolar disorder.

The two women do not romanticize madness: the more they were able to accept their illnesses as such, the more they were able get out of it and lead functional lives under proper medication. When Elyn — who constantly takes notes because of schizophrenia-induced short-term memory — finally took medication after much resistance, she realized that other people had clear minds as a default. On the other hand, James — who discovered not long ago that a brain scan of his looks a whole lot like a serial killer's, and that killer Lizzie Borden happens to be a cousin — takes the matter more carefreely. His hypomania, a constant mild form of good mood, unlike bipolar mood swings, is something he doesn't want to be cured of, because “it just feels so good”. He suggests that under the right social circumstances, the “at-risk” serotonin genes that affect the frontal lobe and medulla during fetal development can widen your window to the world; the genes that can produce a serial killer can likewise produce a happy-go-lucky guy like himself: to be precise, a hypomanic who manipulates people with charm, doesn't care much when his competitiveness ends up hurting people, and who, though low on empathy — as he's recently found out from a survey of friends and family — is positive, liked, and without murderous tendencies on the whole. Incidentally, studies show these sociopathic traits — low empathy, divergent thinking, over-confidence — are four times as likely to be found in CEO's!

James Fallon the charming sociopath

Like our serial-killer-potential moderator Cynthia, I would've liked to know if there's hard evidence of overlap between brain areas that activate during creativity and those that activate during these illnesses (we do know about incidents where frontal lobe damage led to creativity, of course). There probably is, but James thinks the correlation is understudied because creativity, not being a disease, doesn't inspire funding (that sounds like… madness?). According to my own studies done in my bedroom, a moment of inspiration seems to exist between a mood low and a mood high; that moment presents itself as a transition to the high, more a cause than an effect. Could it be that the very act of reflecting and processing steers the brain towards the positive? Elyn says evenings, when her mind is idle from not having to work, is when she's prone to attacks.

So what are the advantages of having a mental illness? Access to emotions and modes of thoughts that normal people don't have seems to be one: whether it's an unbearable weight, or a sense of desperation. Why else would we place a sad song from Beyoncé in a category that's quite different from, say, Billie Holiday? Because Beyoncé's shit is just not dark enough. There's a despair-minimum for serious art. The only reason Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami are taken seriously is because we're still confused about what art means. Another advantage, Kay suggests, is depression as a competent editor (hardly!): all those great ideas you had during a high seem all of a sudden to not have been that great after all (more like grumpy editor!).

But even if a bio-chemical imbalance affects creativity (which it does, duh), does it necessarily make you more talented? I guess it only aides an existing talent, gives it an edge: siding with Malcolm Gladwell, I can imagine that someone like Virginia Woolf had genetic predispositions and a social environment that allowed a passion for reading, instead of, say, swimming; but that she's so affected by the effects of her illness and consumed by these experiences, so immersed in probing these feelings, tossing them around, giving them descriptions and representations, that in that obsession is the amount of “love” that's required to be great at anything.

Elyn Saks, the gentle one, has schizophrenia

In addition to the two mad women at this panel being MacArthur Fellowship recipients and the sociopath man having made scientific breakthroughs, it's worth noting that all three are happily married, which is a feat even for normal people. There's a lot to be said about the social stigma, of course. Elyn says schizophrenics are more often the victims rather than the victimizers, and that the disease would be more socially acceptable if more people came forward; but she understands the difficulty involved. As for herself, she says that even when a part of her brain is telling her that she's just killed people, she's able to make a social judgment that other people would find this idea crazy if she said it out loud. Sounds like a trip.

Susan McKeown performed songs adapted from poems about depression.

The World Science Festival continues in NYC through the weekend.