Scientists have for the first time found powerful evidence that genius may be linked with madness.Speculation that the two may be related dates back millennia, and can be found in the writings of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. Aristotle once claimed that “there is no great genius without a mixture of madness”, but the scientific evidence for an association has been weak – until now.
A study of more than 700,000 adults showed that those who scored top grades at school were four times more likely to develop bipolar disorder than those with average grades.
The link was strongest among those who studied music or literature, the two disciplines in which genius and madness are most often linked in historical records.
The study was conducted by researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, with colleagues from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.
Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, affects about one per cent of the population and is characterised by swings in mood from elation (mania) to depression. During the manic phase there can be feelings of inflated self-esteem, verging on grandiosity, racing thoughts, restlessness and insomnia.
The 19th-century author Edgar Allen Poe, who is thought to have suffered from manic depression, once wrote: “Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence…”
In recent years psychoanalysts, psychiatrists and psychologists have argued that genius and madness are linked to underlying degenerative neurological disorders. The problem has been that both genius and severe mental illness are rare, and high intelligence or achievement is subjectively defined.
Claims about the link have been based on historical studies of creative individuals which are highly selective, subject to bias and rely on retrospective assessments of their mental state.
The study, led by James MacCabe, a senior lecturer in psychiatric epidemiology at the Institute of Psychiatry, compared the final school exam grades of all Swedish pupils aged 15-16 from 1988 to 1997, with hospital records showing admissions for bipolar disorder up to age 31.
The fourfold increased risk of the condition for pupils with excellent exam results remained after researchers controlled for parental education or income.
The findings are published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. They suggest that mania may improve intellectual and academic performance, accounting for the link with “genius”. People with mild mania are often witty and inventive, appearing to have “enhanced access to vocabulary, memory and other cognitive resources”.
They tend to have exaggerated emotional responses which may “facilitate their talent in art, literature or music”. In a manic state individuals have “extraordinary levels of stamina and a tireless capacity for sustained concentration”.
You can read the entire article by Jeremy Laurence at the NZ herald site here