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Madness Redefined at the World Science Festival

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Virginia Woolf. John Keats. Emily Dickinson. Edgar Allen Poe. All are considered brilliant writers, and all were considered to be mad. Quotes from these great writers flashed on the screen as the event opened. The one that most struck me came from Poe, “Science has not yet taught us if madness is or is not the sublimity of the intelligence.”

Like the authors of yore featured in the opening video, all the members of the evening’s panel discussion were both sufferers of mental illnesses and highly accomplished individuals. Neuroscientist James Fallon, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, and mental health law professor Elyn Saks all told tales of their personal struggles and discoveries relating to mental illnesses, and also taught the audience about the link between creativity, intelligence, and mental illness.

Kay Redfield Jamison and Elyn Saks are both accomplished academics and MacArthur Genius award recipients who suffer from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, respectively. James Fallon is an internationally renowned neuroscientist who accidentally discovered that his own brain had characteristics in common with murders and sociopaths. Cynthia McFadden of Nightline news anchor fame asked the three panelists about the topic at hand and moderated the session.

Not all mental disorders have an equal correlation with creativity. Despite the trope of the depressed artist, Jamison said that clinical depression isn’t really linked to creativity. Instead, the mental disorders with the highest incidences of enhanced creativity were bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The reason that the depressed artist myth persists is that most creatives thought to be “depressed” are actually bipolar and going through cyclical depressed phases. She explained that the manic phases of bipolar disorder allow for the generation of many creative ideas, and the depressed phases are the time when these ideas are either edited or discarded. However, the editing process only occurs if the individual can bring herself to function in a depressed period at all. Fallon lended his support to this by showing some of his research that found that bipolar individuals had the highest amount of visual artistic talent. He also highlighted the fact that other neuroscience research has showed that frontotemporal dementia or damage to the frontotemporal lobe of the brain sometimes causes people to become more creative.

Fallon also shared how he realized he had sociopathic tendencies through participating in a study with his family. He realized that a scan of his brain looked eerily similar to the patterns of activity in the brains of the serial killers that he studied. He also possesses gene variants that correlate with the personality traits of low empathy and high aggression. Although he is not out murdering people or eating their faces, he realizes that he possesses a competitive streak with less regard for others’ feelings and can be manipulative and charming. Fallon pointed out that CEOs are about four times as likely to share these sociopathic traits.

Despite the fact that mental illnesses may come with increased creativity and success, both Jamison and Saks urged that it was important not to romanticize madness. Some artists might worry that getting treatment for their illnesses might cut their productivity, but Jamison stated that three-fourths of bipolar creatives on lithium report that they are just as creative as before. Saks added that before treatment, someone might be using all their energy in an attempt to hold themselves together, but with treatment that energy is freed up for more productivity and creativity.

I really enjoyed the program and thought it was one of the most interesting of the festival. I also admired the strength of the panelists in using their personal lives as examples of mental illness, despite the persistent stigma surrounding mental disorders and their treatment. Irish musician Susan McKoewen closed out the evening with her songs comprised of poems about mental illness. If you’re interested in seeing Madness Redefined for yourself, you can check out the replay here.

Image courtesy of World Science Festival

Princess Ojiaku About the Author: Princess Ojiaku is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin - Madison in Neuroscience and Public Policy. She is also a student of life, exuberant nerd, and musician. She often tweets her daily links of interest and digital personal mutterings. Follow on Twitter @artfulaction.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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