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Does Madness Enhance or Diminish Genius?

Discussion in 'General' started by aristotle, Aug 1, 2014.

  1. aristotle

    aristotle
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    The connection between genius and mental illness is paradoxically both clearer and murkier than that between genius and high intelligence. Clearer--because so many geniuses have shown symptoms of mental illness. Murkier--because psychologists have been unable to agree on why there should be any connection between the two.

    Vincent van Gogh, perhaps the most celebrated example of a genius who was mentally ill, suffered from severe depression, mutilated one of his ears in 1888, entered an asylum, and shot himself in 1890 at the age of 37 whilst painting at the height of his creative powers; indeed his greatest work dates from the last two years of his life. Almost unrecognized in Van Gogh's lifetime, his paintings were gradually accepted as works of high artistic importance and are now among the most recognized images in world art.

    Van Gogh's periodic mental derangement was never in doubt, either by himself or his family and associates. Yet neither was his sanity, as proved by his extensive, detailed, and rational letters to his art-dealer brother Theo and fellow artists like Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. ‘His output of letters and pictures displays a strong internal cohesion', three researchers at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam wrote in 2010. ‘This double oeuvre cannot be dismissed as the product of a sick mind. On the contrary, it can only be seen as the legacy of a truly great intellect: the real Van Gogh.' But despite decades of forensic study, the fascinating coexistence of his mental illness and his exceptional creativity remains difficult to explain, while exerting an extraordinary grip on our contemporary imagination.

    The idea of a connection has a long and lusty history. In ancient Greece, Aristotle (or his pupil Theophrastus) asked: ‘Why is it that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry, or the arts are melancholic?' As examples, Aristotle cited Homeric, Sophoclean, and mythological heroes like Ajax and Bellerophon, and historical figures such as the philosophers Empedocles, Plato, and Socrates. According to legend, Empedocles died by throwing himself into the crater of Mount Etna, seeking divine status.

    Aristotle's view influenced Renaissance thinkers. In the 15th century, the Florentine Neoplatonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino saw melancholy as ‘the corporeal price, as it were, to be paid for the soul's "heroic" endeavour to traverse the rationally unbridgeable gulf separating finite and transient nature from infinite and eternal supernature', writes Noel Brann in The Debate over the Origin of Genius during the Italian Renaissance. William Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream intuited something similar. ‘The lunatic, the lover, and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact', says Theseus, the king. ‘One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;/ That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,/ Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt./ The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,/ Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven'. Theseus concludes: ‘Such tricks hath strong imagination,...'.

    In the 19th century, at the time of the Romantic movement, the lives and works of Lord Byron and Robert Schumann--both of them self-destructive--came to epitomize a link between madness and genius, which Van Gogh then reinforced. In the 20th century, three of America's leading artistic figures, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, and Jackson Pollock, took their own lives as a result of depression-and so, in Britain, did Virginia Woolf.

    Scientists as a group have suffered less from mental illness. Nonetheless, a 1990s survey by the psychiatrist Felix Post based on the biographies of 291 exceptionally creative individuals, came to the conclusion that, judged by modern diagnostic standards, Albert Einstein and Michael Faraday suffered from ‘mild' psychopathology, Charles Darwin and Louis Pasteur from ‘marked' psychopathology, and Niels Bohr and Francis Galton from ‘severe' psychopathology, along with a number of other major scientists. Darwin, for example, endured decades of unexplained illness, which seems to have been caused by his anxiety about the public reception of his theory of natural selection.

    The dramatic stories told about individual geniuses tend to distort the overall picture of mental illness and creativity. Anecdotes can easily give the impression that mental instability is a sine qua non of exceptional creativity; a notion that is perhaps nourished by the average person's desire to explain away exceptionally creative achievement. For every such example, however, it is not difficult to find a counter-example of an exceptionally creative artist or scientist in a similar field who shows none of the symptoms of psychopathology.

    To psychologists, the issue of productivity versus excellence in psychopathology is of compelling interest for the light it sheds on the nature of genius. While mania without doubt increases productivity, might it also sometimes improve quality too? If a creative person has a sustained burst of energy and self-confidence, it would seem reasonable that this should have a positive influence on his or her work. On the other hand, mania is likely to preclude the operation of the critical faculty essential for exceptional creativity, which edits with cool detachment what has been created passionately.

    To establish a definitive connection between mental illness and creativity is impossible, at present. Psychologists and psychiatrists assess it very differently. All accept, with Shakespeare, that there is something about madness that can inform our understanding of genius--especially among poets. ‘It seems that the age-old notion that genius is related to madness was not entirely unfounded, even if some invalid explanations have been offered', writes R. Ochse in his balanced survey, Before the Gates of Excellence: The Determinants of Creative Genius. Many accept that the relationship arises from natural selection, which must surely favour creativity as an advantageous evolutionary trait. But for now, there is no agreement on the detail of where creativity's connection with madness actually lies.

    (Source: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sudden-genius/201103/does-madness-enhance-or-diminish-genius)
     
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  3. Sherdil

    Sherdil
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    They say this "madness" exists among the top athletes as well, as they possess an overly competitive nature that carries over into their everyday lives.

    Then again, what is normal? Is it the same as average? Then to be above average makes you mad? This line is so blurry, and it's the reason why there is a knock against psychiatry. They prescribe drugs based on their interpretation of the symptoms, but there is no way to verify if they made the right diagnosis. It's not like they can send a sample to the lab, or take an X-Ray / CT-scan / MRI, or blood test, etc. Their training gives them a strong intuition about what's wrong, but there is an element of guessing involved. Nonetheless, I find the field fascinating.
     
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  4. aristotle

    aristotle
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    True Sherdil Ji. And that is precisely the reason why I love the field of Psychiatry. It is a very fascinating science.
     
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  5. Sherdil

    Sherdil
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    I assume you have already done rotations in this field. Do you think gurbani has an element of psychotherapy to it? Can what we learn about the human condition in gurbani, be applied in a clinical setting?
     
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  6. aristotle

    aristotle
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    Gurbani does give a deep insight into the human psyche, and is certainly helpful in moulding the mindset of a believer into accepting the realities of life, or the Hukam, as we call it. I can only wonder at the mental steadfastness and integrity our martyrs and warriors had in the face of adversities, a brilliant example of mental composure.

    On a different note, a patient's belief in something, religious or spiritual, can be utilised by the experienced psychiatrist in progressing the therapy of the patient.

    What effect the Gurbani can have on a patient, I am yet to fully appreciate practically, but Gurbani certainly keeps me going through my ever-stressful life. Gurbani does have value in the field of psychotherapy, IMO not through vibrations and chants, but through its content matter. I hope I can utilise it in my practice if I decide to be a Psychiatrist.
     
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  7. aristotle

    aristotle
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    See, religious belief is a very strong, deep-rooted thought process. I saw a Sikh patient whose hair the doctors wanted to shave for a certain operation, and though he was in an altered mental state because of the anaesthesia, he refused. These deep-rooted thoughts about religion, family, language etc present spontaneous reactions, subconsciously, almost like an involuntary gag reflex.

    Docs have been using respective religious beliefs in psychiatric therapy for generations, but what use Gurbani can be put to in the therapy of a secular patient, I do not know.
     
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  8. Sherdil

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    The mind is so powerful. I have read of amputees that continue to feel the sensations of their missing limbs. I believe they call this "phantom limb". Also, patients who nearly died on the operating table report seeing visions of whatever they interpret the afterlife to be. For example, someone from an Abrahamic denomination might see white clouds and pearly gates. In essence, the brain has a video of what you think the afterlife will be, and it plays that video when you are dying. I guess this can be considered a dream-like state, when subconscious thoughts bubble to the surface.

    I am also wary of chanting, but there are many who swear by it. As a psychiatrist, would you be willing to encourage such practices under the guise of placebo? These could be used to treat depression, ADHD, anxiety, OCD, etc. I see the benefit of utilizing these beliefs, because it allows patients to stand on their own two feet, rather than becoming dependent on a drug.

    I'm not advocating one way or the other. I'm just curious.
     
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  9. aristotle

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    If it helps the therapy, Yes. You cant force in Psychiatry, have to work by the rules of the patient's mind.
     
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  10. Tejwant Singh

    Tejwant Singh United States
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    Come to think of it, our "madness" which is innate in all of us is our own genius. This is the ingenuity of us humans.
     
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