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Is there a link between insanity and genius?

Insanity, genius, mental illness and madness are all labels we give to people who think and behave in ways that seem beyond, or outside what is seen as 'normal'.

Firsly, what is 'normal', and who labels it so?

Does 'mental illness' deserve such a label, or can so-called normality widen its scope to accept it as 'thinking differently' instead?

What and where is the demarcation line between madness and genius - and who draws that line?


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    Aug 28 2012: In the US, insanity is a legal term. You cannot be insane unless a court of law determines it. Although criteria for the declaration of insanity has changed over the years, one of the current definitions, 'danger of harm to self or others' has been consistently applied since the middle of the last century. I cannot think of any geniuses that have been declared legally insane. I think that there are some mass murderers who are geniuses that have been declared insane. Like the Zodiac killer but I have never seen any solid evidence.

    Madness finds its roots in the behavior of rabid animals. This definition describes a specific type of behavior. I cannot think of any genius frothing at the mouth at the current moment.

    Mental illness is a broad classification for a number of diseases. Diseases with biophysiological basis or malfunction. These diseases are typically described on a continuum from functional to severely incapacitating. Unfortunately, there are a whole bunch of mental illness that have been described by pharmaceutical companies. Everything from 'do you feel anxious, are you feeling blue...'

    Having seen truly mentally ill people who struggle just to meet selfcare needs (feeding, bathing etc), I would have to say no, mental illness and genius do not go hand in hand. Savants being the rare exception.

    But understanding the continuum of mental illness especially in the functional arena, perhaps geniuses are just as likely to be depressed or anxious or have mild OCD as anyone else.

    Just wanted to clarify a few points for all the people I know who are truly severely incapacitated by mental illness and help to differentiate.
    • Aug 28 2012: Hi Linda.

      I have to say that there are a disproportionate number of people who may be regarded as geniuses, who have either taken their own lives or have descended into what many would regard as insanity, madness - or serious mental illness. Call it what you will.

      The likes of Friedrich Nietzche, Van Gogh, John Nash, Alan Turing, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain, Sylvia Plath - the list is huge - would seem to point towards above average occurrence of mental illness of some sort, associated with genius.

      I'm not sure about the relevance of the behaviour of rabid animals with genius. Can you expand on that?

      Genius seems to be a fortuitous convergence of several factors, such as intense focus, perseverance, the ability to join up ideas from differing fields of knowledge, to think the unthinkable etc etc. - these are the more obvious ones.

      What about factors that are less obvious, like the possibility that the creative power of the unconscious mind and the right hemisphere being more prominent in the mind of a genius (or the conscious mind being more recessive)? This might form part of the link I suspect exists with mental illnesses, although I've not yet found research to fully back that up.

      I don't think mental illnesses in the functional arena can categorically be called illnesses. They could be an understandable and natural reaction to a society that has become dysfunctional and quite frankly, inhuman.
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        Aug 28 2012: Mental illness in the functional arena is definitely an illness. I could go into a whole bunch of pathophysiology gobbledegook but I think it might be best to illustrate.

        I worked with a colleague for a very long time who was diagnosed bipolar. He was on medication and with the help of the medication was a highly functional professional. During the course of the illness he started to go in to manic symptomology and as part of the symptomology he decided he was cured and no longer needed medications. Well his behavior became increasingly bizarre and irrational and was no longer able to function in a professional capacity. To the point of loosing his position. We did not hear from him for a long time but several months later he came back. He lost everything family, house, job. His family finally intervened and had him evaluated and committed. During the course of treatment, they were able to reverse the mania down to a rational level. When he visited he was calm and rational but you could tell he was not all there. He was never able to return to an independent functional level after the manic episode, at least not in a professional capacity.

        The disease was NOT a natural reaction to society and perhaps you should find out a little more about mental illness before deciding that depression is due to politics or some nonsense.

        I agree all those people were geniuses and probably had mental illness. But I have not seen any statistics at all that say the incidence of mental illness is greater among geniuses than the greater population.

        I disagree that genius is some type of cosmic convergence of those traits and I think that genius is a human trait that anyone can access. I have seen glimmers of genius from many people you would never expect it from. Some people just apply it more often. Mosttly people who have all their basic needs satisfied and have time to write, read, study instead of trying to put food on the table.
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        Aug 28 2012: Sorry ran out of characters.

        I did not associate madness with genius, you did. Madness describes the behavior of rabid animals and when people act like rabid animals they are said to have madness, snarling, screaming, eating peoples faces in subways. (Recently happened here in the US). That is madness.

        That whole unconscious processing stuff may come in to play in certain strokes of genius. They are called strokes of genius for a reason. I just do not think we know enough about how the brain works in some of those processes to have a good understanding. We can see how it manifests in people, but remember, even Freud's theories are now just a novelty to look at.

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