In Every Element of Genius, Is There an Element of Madness?

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Biology 202

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In Every Element of Genius, Is There an Element of Madness?

Ebony Dix

The hypothesis that genius and madness are related has been in existence for centuries. Aristotle once claimed that "there is no great genius without a mixture of madness" (1). Many of his contemporaries as well as psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, and psychologists today agree with his statement and have argued that genius and madness are indeed linked to underlying degenerative neurological disorders (2). This paper will discuss some findings that aim to verify the relationship between genius and madness and it will encourage the reader to make his or her own assessments and conclusions about the issue. This paper will also encourage its readers to posit new theories that support or refute the idea that a relationship between genius and madness exists.

While scientific evidence to support this idea is scarce and flawed, recent findings suggest that there may have been some truth behind Aristotle's claim. Historical research has found that the rate and intensity of psychopathological symptoms appear to be higher among creative individuals (2). Compilations of psychiatric research have concluded that there is a higher incidence rate and intensity of mental illness symptoms associated with individuals who possess artistic creativity. It is clear that some of the data collected illustrates a trend and does not imply correlation or causation between genius and madness with any statistical significance.

Psychometric research presented by the American Journal of Psychiatry has obtained empirical evidence that intends to prove the correlation between creative individuals and the occurrence of psychopathological symptoms. In the 1950s and 1960s, tests such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) and the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQ) were performed on several subjects and the results showed that those with higher levels of creative ability scored higher on these tests. While this suggests that genius and madness may be closely connected, it does not prove that genius and madness are one in the same. Theoretical interpretations imply that because creativity requires the cognitive ability to explore novel and sometimes unconventional ideas, it also requires the creative individual to be capable of defocusing attention, divergent thinking, and nonconformity (3). As a consequence, creative individuals or those who are dubbed geniuses, may exhibit symptoms that are often associated with mental illness. The frequency and intensity of these symptoms will vary according to the magnitude and domain of creative achievements (2).

Another study, presented by researchers at the Stanford University Medical Center in 2002, involved the administration of personality, temperament, and creativity tests to students studying creative or fine arts, design, and mechanical engineering. The test results showed that individuals in the control group and recovered manic depressives were more likely to be moody and neurotic than the healthy control. Moodiness and neuroticism were part of a group of characteristics these researchers used to identify mild, non-clinical forms of depression and bipolar disorder (5).

The Stanford University study paved the way for psychiatric researchers looking to solve the genius/madness paradox that has seemingly been observed in some of the greatest artists and thinkers who thrived over the last three centuries. For instance, John Nash, a renowned economist and mathematical genius, received a noble prize in 1994 for his contributions to the field of game theory, despite a long, arduous bout of schizophrenia. Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickenson were both 19th century poets, who were thought to have suffered from bipolar disorder. Edgar Allen Poe once wrote: "Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence..." (4). Is it a coincidence that these intelligent individuals just happened to suffer from mental illness, or were their talents linked to their illnesses as some doctors and scientists claim?

Further studies published by the American Journal of Psychiatry have suggested that creativity and mental illness run in the same family (2). The genetic basis for most mental illnesses has been found to be only a partial factor, and while the topic is still controversial, most scientific and medical communities agree that one's vulnerability to mental illness is due to the combined effects of genetic and non-genetic factors (3). If creativity and mental illness run in the same family, then it may be reasonable to conclude that creativity, like mental illness, depends on both genetic and non-genetic factors. One's exposure to an intellectual and cultural environment that is neutral with respect to psychopathology can in turn increase the likelihood of one to exhibit the behaviors of a genius.

With that said, it seems to be reasonable to conclude that there is an element of madness present in some cases of genius, but the exact biological basis for this connection is unknown. To what extent is statistically significant data available to link the genetic defects that predispose an individual to exhibiting the traits of a genius and the traits of a madman? This has yet to be determined.


1)Brainy Quote website,a resource with many quotes from famous people
2)Psychiatric Times,an article from June 2005, Vol. XXII, Issue 7 that discusses whether genius and madness are related
3) search under bipolar,a Website that gives some basic information about bipolar disorder
4) site,resource that publishes informational articles on various topics in medicine
5)mednews site at Stanford University,resource describes a study done in 2002 relating to creativity and mental illness

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