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Straight, No Chaser: The Tortured Mind of a Genius

By Jeffrey Sterling, MD July 16, 2019

genius einstein

Thinking back to the suicide of Robin Williams brings to mind a saying I’ve had for years: “Genius lives on the other side of the fence from insanity.” This has been demonstrated time and again in some of history’s most celebrated geniuses, including renowned artists Vincent van Gogh and Frida Kahlo, literary giants Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Leo Tolstoy, Edgar Allan Poe, Leo Tolstoy and Sylvia Plath, musicians such as Mozart and Beethoven, scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton and any number of modern-day comedic geniuses.

genius insanity

The idea of the tortured genius is not new; in fact the concept is, well, tortured. This concept has been viewed and researched from many different angles, and the following conclusions are both proven by research and generally accepted within the population at large.

  • Out of great pain and struggle comes creativity.
  • The pressures of success can be too much for one to handle and can drive one into depression and toward suicide.

genius insanity 1

The fundamental questions one might consider when looking at your eccentric, friendly neighborhood genius are as follows:

  • Are genius and insanity both products of the same fountain of creativity coming from the brain?
  • Is creativity a product of mental illness?
  • Is mental illness a product of creativity compared against societal norms?
  • Is genius just a form of insanity?

genius michael-jackson-on-brink-of-genius-and-insanity

Be reminded that there are many different forms of mental illness, featuring wildly different clinical signs. Regarding creativity, it is most strongly linked to mood disorders, most notably bipolar disorder (previously known as manic-depressive disorder), in which individuals display dramatic mood swings between extreme happiness (aka as “mania”) and severe depression.
Medical research on this issue has uncovered some interesting facts:

  • The same patterns of brain activity occur both when normal individuals display creativity and when bipolar individual emerge from depression and head toward mania.
  • Both geniuses and psychotic individuals have abilities that others don’t when it comes to processing stimuli into brain patterns and then converting these patterns into conscious thought. Psychotic individuals are less able to “filter” stimuli. Instead, they are better able to entertain loose association that other individuals might not make and then deliver these associations to the brain as ideas. In other words, a genius’ beautifully and brilliantly constructed picture or sentence could be interpreted as a normal person’s “nonsense.” Sounds like a lot of conversations that occur about art and music such as jazz, doesn’t it?
  • Geniuses and psychotic individuals are more able to entertain contradictory ideas at the same time than those who are not. This leads to more complex forms of thought and expression. Again, the notion of “nonsense” vs. “expression of genius” comes into play here.

genius steve jobs1 genius steve jobs

Perhaps the important consideration here is found in the notion of functionality. A prominent part of the definition of various psychoses is the inability to function. Perhaps the difference between creative, eccentric and psychotic individuals is to be found in the relative ability to channel that creativity toward productive and societally-accepted endeavors. Of course the concern with the tortured genius is in spite of all evidence to the contrary, including fame, fortune and love, some of these individuals still spiral into depression and other mental illnesses. In some instances, this ends tragically with the loss of life.

genius michael-jackson-on-brink-of-genius-and-insanity

Be mindful that those individuals who display abnormality of thought – even if what you see is creativity or extreme intelligence – have abnormality of thought, or at least unconventional means of thinking. Sometimes this results in horrible outcomes. Take the time to care and make sure your genius isn’t a tortured one.
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