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

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Biology 202
2006 First Web Paper
On Serendip

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



Comments made prior to 2007
I have always thought that there was a correlation between high IQ's and insanity: That there was a very fine line between the two as well ... Scarlet Wright, 1 March 2007


Sean Hersey 's picture

what is a genius?

. I was am 42 years old. I graduated high school when I was 16. With a perfect 4.0 G.P.A. I went to college for 2 years and just could not get along with my pears because they were so much older than I. They looked at me with a look of disgust. So I joined the marine corps. I stayed in for 4 years. Got out for 3 months then went back in for another 6 years until I was in a I.E.D. Explosion which ended my military service. I look at most any mechanical item and see what is inside and how it works. I understand the inner workings of most anything without even looking under the hood. I just don't have any drive left in me. When I wake up in the morning I don't even want to get out of bed. Most days are filled with pain and suffering from injuries and the metal parts that now hold me together. I feel anxious around people. I just don't care anymore. I used to love getting up in the morning. But not anymore. I don't know what is wrong with me? I don't enjoy life the way I once did. Am I depressed, in need of meds to fix my brain housing group? I just want to find the man I was and put it back together. Nothing makes me happy. And I find myself putting on a fake smile and pretending that I am happy and excited when all I really want is to get away from everyone! When I was in high school my teachers would tell me that one day I would change the world. And it put a lot of pressure on me. But I really don't care anymore! And don't know what to do.
Or as I like to say semper gumby always flexible.

DANIEL MAINA's picture

help me to know what am i

Am 27 years and unfortunately i didn't manage to go high school because of financial state. well, apart from that a've manage to corp-up with life like other learned peoples. But according the days goes by i feel like am running out of time because i feel extremely talented. And in all the cases everything that i come across with i see there is something that can possibly be done to make things right and more better. But the big PROBLEM is that nobody seems to believe my insight coz my be am not learned and i can't articulate myself well. In so many thing that i can say, i feel totally different with others coz i can see and feel it! AM HARD to concetrate when it comes to reading, the only thing that am concerned with is head letter only then am done! I CANT FIGURE OUT WHAT I AM and nobody want to name it........

Sibongile Maseko's picture

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

I trully believe that abnormal means above normal.
I do enjoy my uniqueness i do not conform to standards as i do not have the ability to do so.
Truelly authentic and proud.
Rather be true to my self than lie to the world.

ALEX ONYANGO's picture

need help

I am a 2nd year-college student, i think i am a genius and at the same time mad, i easily forget and
my friends in college think that i am mentally sick, i find myself preoccupied upstairs that a times
i don't concentrate in whatever am doing.some of them think that am clumsy and unmotivated.
and i am different from everybody, i am always late to class very disorganized and floppy in handwriting poor in spellings ,sometimes when i think of all this i just feel like running away from school and be my own boss by setting up a business because with all the traits mentioned i don think i can be subjected to anyone especially the less
intelligent. to make matters worse this has interfered with my relationship with so many girls after a good start.and this problems tend to increase as time goes by.
thanks for the article that has changed my view of who i am,but i still need more of this.

LY's picture


Dear Alex,

How are you doing ? I know a person who displayed the same symptoms as yours in my circle. Will you contact me so we can discuss on this matter ?

Shawn Lee's picture

There can be no such

There can be no such correlation made perfectly since we are all at different levels of our own sanity respective to our environments. I have seen a correlation myself and agree with the thesis of this paper however a completely open mind must be had to interpret the psyche in such a way. If there is ever a method to control biological factors of the brain then the human race as we know it will face an Aldous Huxley type life and what kind of life is that?