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Olena {The Wizard}
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Immortal since Aug 5, 2009
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    Beautiful Minds
    Why do creative and/or intelligent people often suffer from some kind of mental illness, or at least bouts of, if not a steady, depression? Citing too many examples seems unnecessary as it's brought to mass attention enough - suicidal rock stars, mathematicians, alcoholic/drug-addicted artists, missing ears, and so on. "A Beautiful Mind", referenced in the post's title, addressed this very phenomenon (albeit, only in one man). "Pollock" seems less well-known, but also excellent & shows how a creative was both raised and brought to his knees by his extra-ordinary thinking.

    I've been interested in this topic for a very long time, and I wonder not only why the two seem to go hand-in-hand, but is there some causality? Is it that being different and therefore often ostracized for these differences makes one fall into depression? That doesn't seem to explain it - what about visionaries like Yayoi Kusama who were "insane" before their creative inclinations forced them to express what they imagined? Then, does that mean that most of these individuals are in some way "mad" to begin with, and therefore are able to come up with other ways of looking at things than those of us who think "normally"?

    A little while ago I came across this hour-long documentary about brilliant mathematicians who committed suicide, called "Dangerous Knowledge":

    If you don't have time to watch that, then perhaps read the short synopsis here.

    Or, this: A list of the Top 10 Scientists who Committed Suicide.

    Not only is it tragic that our most brilliant thinkers fall into these states, but it makes the very thought of pursuing intelligence and going into any... well, I don't want to say career, in this case it's more like a life-long obsession, a love... but in any case, it's almost scary to even wander into "that field" knowing how one feels while there; knowing the effects that prolonged exposure had on others.

    The other day, I finally found what might just be an answer - this article in Scientific American suggests that depression may have evolutionary roots, and gives what seems to be a highly sensical & probable explanation as to why thinkers tend to be more susceptible to depressive symptoms:

    "One reason to suspect that depression is an adaptation, not a malfunction, comes from research into a molecule in the brain known as the 5HT1A receptor. The 5HT1A receptor binds to serotonin, another brain molecule that is highly implicated in depression and is the target of most current antidepressant medications. Rodents lacking this receptor show fewer depressive symptoms in response to stress, which suggests that it is somehow involved in promoting depression. (Pharmaceutical companies, in fact, are designing the next generation of antidepressant medications to target this receptor.) When scientists have compared the composition of the functional part rat 5HT1A receptor to that of humans, it is 99 percent similar, which suggests that it is so important that natural selection has preserved it. The ability to “turn on” depression would seem to be important, then, not an accident.

    This is not to say that depression is not a problem. Depressed people often have trouble performing everyday activities, they can’t concentrate on their work, they tend to socially isolate themselves, they are lethargic, and they often lose the ability to take pleasure from such activities such as eating and sex. Some can plunge into severe, lengthy, and even life-threatening bouts of depression.

    So what could be so useful about depression? Depressed people often think intensely about their problems. These thoughts are called ruminations; they are persistent and depressed people have difficulty thinking about anything else. Numerous studies have also shown that this thinking style is often highly analytical. They dwell on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components, which are considered one at a time.

    This analytical style of thought, of course, can be very productive. Each component is not as difficult, so the problem becomes more tractable. Indeed, when you are faced with a difficult problem, such as a math problem, feeling depressed is often a useful response that may help you analyze and solve it. For instance, in some of our research, we have found evidence that people who get more depressed while they are working on complex problems in an intelligence test tend to score higher on the test.

    Analysis requires a lot of uninterrupted thought, and depression coordinates many changes in the body to help people analyze their problems without getting distracted. In a region of the brain known as the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), neurons must fire continuously for people to avoid being distracted. But this is very energetically demanding for VLPFC neurons, just as a car’s engine eats up fuel when going up a mountain road. Moreover, continuous firing can cause neurons to break down, just as the car’s engine is more likely to break down when stressed. Studies of depression in rats show that the 5HT1A receptor is involved in supplying neurons with the fuel they need to fire, as well as preventing them from breaking down. These important processes allow depressive rumination to continue uninterrupted with minimal neuronal damage, which may explain why the 5HT1A receptor is so evolutionarily important."

    -Paul W. Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson, Jr.
    Scientific American, August 25, 2009

    If it is actually a selected trait, a feature rather than a a malfunction, it seems to be a little bit counter-productive... but, if it is true, then by the looks of it it means that the chicken-or-egg question is at least solved for this case, because they are not mutually exclusive but rather arrive at once, or, when one "needs" the other.

    { 01.23.10 } *Edit: adding to the initial research.

    These is a book called "The Courage to Be", in which theologian Paul Tillich writes about Anxiety and Courage, our constant battle with the former (mostly existential anxiety), and the effects of such (on the modern man).

    A common anxiety:

    “There is, however, one common denominator in all the theories: anxiety is the awareness of unsolved conflicts between structural elements of the personality, as for instance conflicts between unconscious drives and repressive norms, between different drives trying to dominate the center of the personality, between imaginary worlds and the experience of the real world, between trends towards greatness and perfection and the experience of one’s smallness and imperfection, between the desire to be accepted by other people or society or the universe and the experience of being rejected, between the will to be and the seemingly intolerable burden of being which evokes the open or hidden desire not to be. All these conflicts, whether unconscious, subconscious, or conscious, whether unadmitted or admitted, make themselves felt in sudden or lasting stages of anxiety.”

    And then, this one speaks exactly about my initial questions — what is the place of neurosis within the creative; why is it there? — These are some sound answers:

    "Anxiety turns toward courage, because the other alternative is despair. Courage resists despair by taking anxiety into itself. ...
    This Analysis gives the key to understanding pathological anxiety. He who does not succeed in taking his anxiety courageously upon himself can succeed in avoiding the extreme situation of despair by escaping into neurosis. He still affirms himself but on a limited scale. Neurosis is the way of avoiding nonbeing by avoiding being. In the neurotic state self-affirmation is not lacking; it can indeed be very strong and emphasized. But the self which is affirmed is a reduced one. ... less than [the] essential or potential being. ... The neurotic is more sensitive than the average man to the threat of nonbeing. And since nonbeing opens up the mystery of being he can be more creative than the average. This limited extensiveness of self-affirmation can be balanced by greater intensity, but by an intensity which is narrowed to a special point accompanied by a distorted relation to reality as a whole. Even if pathological anxiety has psychotic traits, creative moments can appear. There are sufficient examples of this fact in the biographies of creative men. And as the example of the demoniacs of the New Testament shows, people far below the average can have flashes of insight which the masses and even the disciples of Jesus do not have: the profound anxiety produced by the presence of Jesus reveals to them in a very early stage of his appearance his messianic character. The history of human culture proves again and again neurotic anxiety breaks through the walls of ordinary self-affirmation and opens up levels of reality which are normally hidden.
    ... The difference between the neurotic and the healthy (although potentially neurotic) personality is the following: the neurotic personality, on the basis of his greater sensitivity to nonbeing and consequently of his profounder anxiety, has settled down to a fixed, though limited and unrealistic, self-affirmation. This is, so to speak, the castle to which he has retired and which he defends with all means of psychological resistance against attack, be it from the side of reality or from the side of the analyst. And this resistance is not without some instinctive wisdom. The neurotic is aware of the danger of a situation in which his unrealistic self-affirmation is broken down and no realistic self-affirmation takes its place. The danger is either that he will fall back into another and much better defended neurosis or that with the breakdown of his limited self-affirmation he will fall into an unlimited despair.
    The situation is different in the case of the normal self-affirmation of the average personality. That is also fragmentary. The average person keeps himself away from the extreme situations by dealing courageously with concrete objects of fear. He usually is not aware of nonbeing and anxiety in the depth of his personality. But his fragmentary self-affirmation is not fixed and defended against an overwhelming threat of anxiety. He is adjusted to reality in many more directions than the neurotic. He is superior in extensity, but he is lacking in the intensity which can make the neurotic creative. His anxiety does not drive him to the construction of imaginary worlds. He affirms himself in unity with those parts of reality which he encounters; and they are not definitively circumscribed. This is what makes him healthy in comparison with the neurotic. The neurotic is sick and needs healing because of the conflict in which he finds himself with reality. In this conflict he is hurt by the reality which permanently penetrates the castle of his defense and the imaginary world behind it. ...
    There is a moment in which the self-affirmation of the average man becomes neurotic: when changes of the reality to which he is adjusted threaten the fragmentary courage with which he has mastered the accustomed objects of fear. ... [These changes] make the average man a fanatical defender of the established order. He defends it as compulsively as the neurotic defends the castle of his imaginary world. He loses his comparative openness to reality, he experiences an unknown anxiety. ... This is the explanation of the mass neuroses which usually appear at the end of an era. ... 'periods of existential anxiety'."

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    Eli Horn     Sat, Sep 5, 2009  Permanent link
    Interesting subject. My initial thoughts are that perhaps it has to do with taking that certain process of thought to the extreme. I would imagine that somebody for whom analytical thinking is a 'career' could easily fall into habitual over-analyzing.

    I wonder if something like regular meditation or therapeutic psychedelic use could be enough to give the mind a break and give balance to the analytic 'side-effects'. Perhaps the state one enters during analytical thought should be referred to as something other than depression, while the over-exposure to such a state could be what we generally apply the term to.

    This brings to mind a personal experience which I had during an LSA (from Hawaiian Baby Woodrose) experience. It was one of the very few bad trips that I have had on psychedelics (despite having taken that same dose numerous times), and the only way I can describe it is as 'analytic ADHD' where I lay in bed as my mind just took every thought in my head and broke it down into smaller and smaller thoughts at a frightening speed. I more or less lost control of my mind for two hours (which needless to say was absolutely no fun). On coming back to 'reality' my first thoughts were that this was a warning from my mind that I should be exercising more control over my thoughts if I really want to achieve another level of holotropic state through psychedelics.

         Wed, Sep 9, 2009  Permanent link

    Schizotypy, creativity, levels of creative output and getting laid are highly correlated. This research paper should answer a lot of your questions.
         Wed, Sep 9, 2009  Permanent link
    I just came across something else around the same lines:

    I'm really looking forward to reading it :)
    Olena     Wed, Sep 9, 2009  Permanent link
    Thanks Dmitri, interesting links. I've only just read the top one... it makes sense, but then, I'm questioning some of the conclusions they're drawing:

    Introvertive anhedonia decreases creative
    , and also has a direct negative effect on mating

    That's just the inverse of what the evolutionary trait article was saying, which is that introversion actually helps the creative mind by isolating it from distractions that might inhibit problem-solving.

    I think, therefore, that "creative activity" doesn't necessarily decrease, but rather that the "success" of said activity might decrease, since they were grouping participants by level of professionalism in a field where connections are vastly important.
    And then, wouldn't it follow suit that a more sociable individual might also have more sexual partners than one who has less contact with other people?

    So, the peacock analogy works, but it seems to have more to do with showmanship & exposure than with creativity & intellect, as is visible in the examples from the scientific community.
    Olena     Wed, Sep 9, 2009  Permanent link
    I think this also needs highlighting:

    Unusual experiences: The disposition to have unusual perceptual and other cognitive experiences, such as hallucinations, magical or superstitious belief and interpretation of events . In the clinical form manifests as positive symptoms of hallucinations and delusions.
    Cognitive disorganization: A tendency for thoughts to become derailed, disorganized or tangential. In the clinical form manifests as the positive symptoms of disorganized speech and flight of ideas.
    Introverted anhedonia: A tendency to introverted, emotionally flat and asocial behavior, associated with a deficiency in the ability to feel pleasure from social and physical stimulation. This manifests clinically as the negative symptoms of flattened affect, alogia and avolition.
    Impulsive nonconformity: The disposition to unstable mood and behavior particularly with regard to rules and social conventions. Manifests clinically as disorganized and socially inappropriate behavior like dressing inappropriately.

    These four dimensions of schizotypal "disorder", when applied to a creative mind, can be tools rather than hinderances... it's just funny to me that (though surely not in all cases) the difference is the level of productivity.

    & I've just happened upon another article on this topic: Creativity & Madness.
         Thu, Sep 10, 2009  Permanent link
    Anhedonia is a symptom that actually applies to all enjoyable layers of the reality of the person who experiences it leaving nothing but horrible hollow suffering. It's a condition that goes way beyond any form of productivity boost from being free from distraction.

    My idea of things is that psychological "normality" in the consensus definiton is the worst "disorder" that anyone could have. It's a condition that makes someone boring, uncreative, and manipulable. People who identify as "normal" are often seen as tools by the rest, and that includes some very evil people. I think it's a disorder of idealism, though, and I'm sure that everyone whether they deny it in one way or another not lies somewhere on the insanity spectrum, as normality doesn't exist concretely since it's nothing more than an abstract mathematical concept.

    Come to know yourself, come to know your flaws, embrace them and work with them, as you are who you are and nothing's going to change that. Otherwise you're going to flounder in mediocrity because you never tried to work with what you got and instead denied your true self. I think that's one of the roots of creativity... The survival mechanism of working within limits towards transcending them.

    Another article:

    Also, something I put together a while ago: 
         Thu, Sep 10, 2009  Permanent link
    And yet another research paper, this time on the link between latent inhibition "problems" related to mental illness and creative output: 
    Olena     Thu, Sep 10, 2009  Permanent link
    Oh my. I'm definitely going to get around to reading those really soon, thanks!

    What you said about anhedonia, I totally agree - of course some of those symptoms are totally inhibiting; that's what happens in depression. Of course it doesn't seem to be in the best interests of anyone when one can't even get up to live a normal day because it seems like there is no point.

    But it seems like, for so many people creativity has to be some kind of escapism - you can't /really/ live "it" (the child's astronaut dreams): it's dress-up, a costume, or a joke, or you were inebriated, or you're playing a video game. The desire for "magical thinking" seems to be there, and yet frowned upon if it happens out of the context of one of those scenarios. I think that aspect of "normality" is really sad & I personally hope that some kind of paradigm shift can occur, addressing that...
    Olena     Fri, Sep 18, 2009  Permanent link
    Further information on the topic, from Don Norman:

    When you are in a state of negative affect, feeling anxious or endangered, the neurotransmitters focus the brain processing. Focus refers to the ability to concentrate upon a topic, without distraction, and then to go deeper and deeper into the topic until some resolution is reached. Focus also implies concentration upon the details. It is very important for survival, which is where negative affect plays a major role. Whenever your brain detects something that might be dangerous, whether through visceral or reflective processing, your affective system acts to tense muscles in preparation for action and to alert behavioral and reflective level to stop and concentrate upon the problem. The neurotransmitters bias the brain to focus upon the problem and avoid distractions. This is just what you need to do in order to deal with danger.

    Also, Eli, I don't think I ever responded... your comment about introducing medication or psychedelic use: Medication is clearly already being used, but the question I think is when is it necessary? If a mind doesn't want to be quieted, even at the expense of itself, then I personally don't think it's right to sedate it.

    Psychedelics, on the other hand, might work for some people but I'm not sure that it's a good idea for someone who is already suffering anxiety. You did say that it depends on the control one has over one's own mind... I can't say much about psychedelics in any knowledgeable manner, but what I do often hear is people suggesting Marijuana use to someone who is stressed. For some people, this works wonders & relaxes them. However, in other situations, it actually amplifies the anxieties of stress and leaves one in a worse situation mentally than they were in prior to use.
    I suppose it depends upon the control & expectations of the user; the level of their anxiety, even if latent in a sober state.

    It's also the same as with medication. When one is in a state of concentration, it's difficult to break free from that because the problem that needs to be solved is as important as anything in life.
    Speaking of, creative & intellectual concentration reminds me of (video) gamers - those few cases of non-stop gaming where the player would drop dead.

    First Dark     Sat, Sep 26, 2009  Permanent link
    I may get in on this discussion later, but for now I will just recommend watching the following lecture by Robert Sapolsky about schizotypalism and religiosity:

    Although it isn't addressing the main topic of this post, it's certainly worth viewing for anyone interested in schizotypalism and its possible implications.
    Olena     Sun, Sep 27, 2009  Permanent link
    First Dark - thank you for that video link, I just watched it.
    I think it certainly is addressing this post in some ways - humans look to their intellectuals and artists for answers, much as they looked to the shamans discussed by Sapolsky.
    First Dark     Tue, Sep 29, 2009  Permanent link
    Ah yes, that's an excellent point.

    It seems to me that exceptionally brilliant or creative minds need a strong basis of support in order to counterbalance the hyperactivity and retain mental stability. The support may be external, internal, or a combination of both. But once the support weakens or is overwhelmed by the hyperactive side, the mind reacts defensively, perhaps with depression or psychosis. For those unique minds unlucky enough to be too far at odds with the society around them, a constant struggle is faced which often leads to destruction, rather than creativity. These standards of "normality"... hm...

    Some links to ponder:

    Imagination and Madness
    Could there be a Darwinian Account of Human Creativity?
    Strange Scientists (starts at about 08:30)
    Olena     Thu, Oct 1, 2009  Permanent link
    Thanks, FD. It's true, support certainly helps.

    the work of the art student is no light matter. few have the courage and stamina to see it through. you have to make up your mind to be alone in many ways. we like sympathy and we like company. it is easier than going it alone. but alone one gets acquainted with himself, grows up and on, not stopping with the crowd. it costs to do this.

    A delicate balance is needed, I guess.

    Thank you for those links! SO much information out there... I wish there was a way to absorb it in one sitting, like Leeloo.
    First Dark     Fri, Oct 2, 2009  Permanent link
    Agreed. Brilliance and creativity can be mentally hazardous even if you're just trying to keep up with the collective flow of ideas and information...

    (Great movie, by the way.)
    Amfoes     Mon, Oct 12, 2009  Permanent link
    Very interesting topic.

    I first hooked up on a possible correlation between mental well-being and creativity when I learned that Dostoyevski, my favorite writer, was epileptic. Here is an insightful article on the case of Dostoyevski.

    For those who wish to read more on the epilepsy, I found the Geschwind syndrome and its manifestations - hypergraphia and hyposexuality - very interesting and worth to explore more.
    bpwnes     Fri, Oct 16, 2009  Permanent link
    (Aha! moment)

    I've always known I was different from others. After some inner exploration I realized the reason why, my brain is organized differently from others'. For the sake of argument, lets say that half of a normal brain is used for math (and related subjects). I noticed that that part of my brain uses up much more than half. The parts it overtakes are used for language (specifically grammar) and memory (I have a hard time remembering anything but numbers). As a result of this, I can calculate complex mathematical equations in my head, but I cannot tell you what the key words are in a sentence.

    A good example of this disorganization in my brain can be found in the way words are organized. I know the definition of most english words and can look them up easily. Finding synonyms, is much harder. (And now that I think of it, thinking of what to write is also hard...)

    Most people on this site are well versed and it makes me feel inferior because I can't express myself using big words.
    Olena     Sun, Oct 18, 2009  Permanent link
    FD - I finally finished reading that conversation about Imagination and Madness.
    Thank you so much for that; I think that one more than anything really addressed the topic- where these issues come from and the way that they manifest in the creative - & helped to answer my personal questions about it.

    bpwnes - You shouldn't feel inferior; you can do math! That's wonderful. It's something I hated since a very young age, unfortunately... until recently. For me, the problem was always that I never got a better explanation than "because it just works", so I never could remember how to make it work correctly.

    We are all put together quite differently, and yet... there are some things like that which are solvable, if you really want to put in the effort to "catch up".
    opoloqo     Fri, Oct 23, 2009  Permanent link
    This book sits on my shelf waiting to be read:

    Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament

    "We of the craft are all crazy," remarked Lord Byron about himself and his fellow poets. "Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched."

    Any chance you could read it for me? ( :
    Olena     Fri, Oct 30, 2009  Permanent link
    opoloqo - I would love to read that. But I'm afraid it would have to rest on the shelf for a while, too - I'm on too many books at once for now.

    ((Side Note: This reminds me, I'm reading "Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, & the Spiritual" - it's a great textbook & beautifully designed, but besides that, the chapters I've just finished discuss this time period (that is, roughly the time of Byron; a bit later) and the "fashion" of madness & melancholy in the creative circles.
    That's old news but I think originally my question was whether it is nature or nurture or both: the seemingly pervasive nature in turn became a desired characteristic, consciously chosen or not.))

    The artistic temperament... I'm not so sure if it's wise to go even more deeply into that because I'm reminded of Orwell's writing:
    "The best books... are those that tell you what you know already."
    I'm wary that it might lead to head-nodding and subjective confirmations as opposed to new ideas that might bring along answers, but hell knows I only got that feeling from reading the first page. What do you think?
    First Dark     Tue, Apr 19, 2011  Permanent link
    Olena     Wed, Apr 20, 2011  Permanent link
    Wow FD thank you for that link, I'm so excited to finish reading it!
    First Dark     Thu, Apr 21, 2011  Permanent link
    Thought you might enjoy that! :)