Are All Geniuses Crazy?

Genius in the movies

I watched the movie "Proof" some time back - Gwyneth Paltrow plays the daughter of Anthony Hopkins, and both are extraordinarily mathematically gifted. The story was interesting, in its own way, but what struck me most was its thematic connection with movies such as "A Beautiful Mind" and "Good Will Hunting." The presupposition each movie makes is that a person with a high degree of genius mathematical intellect must also, necessarily, be crazy.

This theory comes from where? Einstein, presumably, since he was brilliant, but didn't have the presence of mind to comb his hair. Hair combing being the sign of unequivocal sanity, of course.

But what's interesting to me this common thread we're supposed to automatically understand as the viewer, which is that mathematical genius is just a step from psychosis, or paranoid schizophrenia. Certainly it borrows some origins from that of the (idiot) savant - the functional illiterate whose cognitive powers are, somehow all channeled into one talent that they master above all else - such as playing the piano, or solving complex mathematical algorithms.

What we don't understand

It makes for an interesting premise, and it's even more intriguing to me why we, the audience, buy it so readily. In high school, my two best friends were mathematically gifted. One was probably destined to be an engineer by the age of eight - he's just that technically-minded. Back then, my friends would have these high-brow calculus+ level discussions about things I didn't understand, subtley patronizing me when I asked inane questions. I was, you see, their mathematically average friend - good in English, but so what, right? Just to rub it in, my engineer friend was able to get one of his essays from English class published in a school textbook - take that, English-boy! See how inconsequential is writing knowledge?

I bring this up to make a point - writers make movies, and writers are seldom gifted mathematicians. So, naturally, people strong in the language arts are apt to look at the mathematically-gifted with the same kind of drunken awe as I did when I was in high school. What we don't understand, we either idolize or condemn. Or, we do both - so we create this "crazy genius." The mad scientist. Can't be smart and literate, right? That would make us feel small and inconsequential beyond words!

I know I'm being flip, but it is an interesting way to look at it, isn't it?

With that said, I do find it intriguing to examine who we, as a society, find crazy vs. who we determine to be genius. There can be a fine line. Take the proverbial downtown transient - let's call him Marvin Schlinkmann. Marvin doesn't bathe, shave or sleep indoors. You see him early in the morning sleeping on the steps of a church. At lunchtime, he's wandering down the street muttering to himself while we glance the other way as we head to meet our friends at Hamburger Mary's. Who's to say he really isn't talking to someone who we're too unevolved and self-absorbed to see or hear? This person may exist on a separate plane of existence, and through some tweak of cosmic fate, Marvin was granted unique insight into this parallel dimension. His conversation is simply him serving as tour guide for his cosmic neighbor.

How do you feel about that? Does it make you want to idolize or condemn Marvin?

Being There - Peter Sellers
Being There - Peter Sellers

Being There

Bottom line, don't we all just want to know what we don't know? When we see glimpses of insight into areas of knowledge we don't understand, I'm afraid we sometimes grant those persons credibility and standing far beyond what they deserve. Certainly, there are savants, people who stand at the precipice of both genius and insanity, but sometimes movies like these remind me of Peter Sellers' amazing character Chauncey Gardener in "Being There."

Sometimes crazy is just crazy.

And sometimes we may just have to surrender to the notion that there are some things we are never going to understand - and make some sort of peace with that.

Either that, or go crazy ourselves.

Comments 50 comments

redpony profile image

redpony 8 years ago from PA

I have M.S. in Math, Gerg :)

The high school "gifted" level is very different from the Math genius level. All outstanding mathematicians-scientists I know are crazy in some way. When I say "crazy" I don't mean psychosis or paranoid schizophrenia. I mean "seriously out of touch with reality and very much idiosyncratic". Imagine ridiculous clothes, strange behaviour, uncommon views on the world, and peculiar grooming habits. It's a fact. But geniuses-mathematicians are not one-sided. They are often very gifted in arts.


Gerg profile image

Gerg 7 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, redpony - yes, I suppose that makes sense. I do have to say a large number of artists and writers also seem to be crazy in some way (witness the high degree of alcoholism/substance abuse!) Interestingly, and supporting your premise, I found one dictionary definition of "genius" suporting the artistic: "extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity", while another simply states: "a single strongly marked capacity or aptitude."

Perhaps it just comes down to the supposition we're all just a little nuts . . .


jforrest 7 years ago

Thanks Gerg. A great resource for this subject is www.talentdevelop.com. They cover this topic openly and creatively. Keep writing!


Gerg profile image

Gerg 7 years ago from California Author

Interesting site - I'll check it out further. Thanks Jenna!


hilltrekker profile image

hilltrekker 7 years ago

An interesting hub, a nice topic.


Gerg profile image

Gerg 7 years ago from California Author

Thanks for checking in, hilltrekker!


Roliel 7 years ago

Nice post. I was a rather gifted mathematician in high school, and I'm *only* above average in college mathematics (however, my degree still says mathematics), and I guarantee the crazyness of mathematicians; all the professional mathematicians are at least a bit nuts.

But then again, so are the physicists. Strangely enough, my Computer Science teachers seem to be among the most grounded.

More importantly, I would like to thank you for responding to the comments that people leave you. All too often it seems like people write an article just to pontificate, and totally neglect their readers (many of whom have interesting points of view). Good job!


Gerg profile image

Gerg 7 years ago from California Author

Roliel - thanks for commenting! To be honest, it's more likely that because we esteem gifted mathemeticians, etc., we're more likely to notice when another side of them seems less developed. It's the contrast that catches our attention.

I love comments - not only is it validating, it's interesting to see perspectives of others.

Carpe diem!


DancingRedFeather profile image

DancingRedFeather 7 years ago

I was zero in math but a whiz in algebra..go figure! I was gifted with a memory..I could memorize a poem in few minutes and then recite it my eyes closed without a mistake. I could read 5 300 pages (books) and then have you ask me any question, tell you the page the paragraph and if you tried to trick me by quoting from another book..I would tell you.

I also had a solution to any problem..no matter what it was..I found an answer to it..still do. I compose songs, write poems as easy as saying boo..but am I a genius..heck no..little crazy maybe..but then we all are..:)


Gerg profile image

Gerg 7 years ago from California Author

DRF - it's weird what we can recall. I, for example, remember the phone numbers of all my friends when I was 10 years old. If we're lucky, what we recall and use has some value to us. I hope yours does!


Darren 7 years ago

It may be, since we see "crazy" behavior in people of both extremes of right or left brain, that it is that process of "working outside the box" that forces or frees us to appear just a bit nuts even in other aspects of life. If we push the extremes of our abilities it becomes a kind of continuous theme.


Gerg profile image

Gerg 7 years ago from California Author

Darren - of course, I wrote all of this in fun, but crazy is certainly relative. I find Einstein particularly interesting because he used both right and left brained thinking: mathematics vs. philosophy, etc. Relativity takes a creative mind to think past the numbers into the foundation of modern science. Fascinating stuff!


Zorro 7 years ago

I feel like this post wasn't really based on any evidence. Many artists and scientists are known "crazies," Newton, Van Gogh, Roger Waters, ect. There are many. When you think extremely deep, you question the reasons behind everything, so continuing in a world that will eventually turn to dust can getunbearably hopeless. You also may compare your achievemants to those of others, and so are constantly driven to be better, but are also often depressed that you will never be best at everything. Also, high understanding from something derives from heavy indulgence in the field, often a result of extreme obsession. Further, like DancingRedFeather said above, and like your example of savant, some people's minds remember things to exactness. And finally, "crazy" is usually just behaving differently than socially normal, so people that are very structured by reasons, would tend not to understand the hypocritacal and unreasoning majority, and so behave differently, and so be called "crazy." I don't think that crazy geniuses were a creation of romantic writers, and i don't think that it's a strict role. Most people probably have some form of autism, depression, and rebelious tendancies, as well as their own mental accomplishments.


Gerg profile image

Gerg 7 years ago from California Author

Zorro - probably the reason you feel this wasn't based on evidence is that this article was done tongue-in-cheek (I thought that was obvious!) I do like your statement "high understanding from something derives from heavy indulgence in the field, often a result of extreme obsession." Voila - that is likely the heart of the issue and the point of the entire piece. I appreciate your comments!


Iceman 6 years ago

A few interesting people to consider. Nikola Tesla, who practically invented the mad scientist and in his later years worked on a no joke death ray. Isaac Newton, who spent more time looking for secret messages in the Bible than doing physics but pretty much invented it anyway. And Edward Witten, the most brilliant string theorist in the world, who is not only decidedly un-crazy but can probably write better than you too (no offense, but he started out as a political journalist). Not trying to make a point, just think these people are cool.


Gerg profile image

Gerg 6 years ago from California Author

;-) No offense taken, Iceman. I'm a father and an Executive; writing is just what I do for fun (see http://hubpages.com/hub/Write-Therapy). Though I wrote this two years ago, a notable addition is The Soloist - a terrific book and movie about a Julliard cello prodigy who ends up on the streets; now a paranoid schizophrenic - nobly played by Jamie Foxx.


iammeanduareyou 6 years ago

i am condsed a genius by all the people who know me and i am also condesed insane but its because of the fact that i can join in any type of consvites and know what i am talking about, also to the fact that i can tell people things that always seems to come true but every since i was young i was a math wiz, even with being bored with a speech impedment and being highly dyslexic myself i was never able to learn how to write or spell very well, but that is because i have had to memizie every word that i know how to spell because of the fact that the rules with sounds do not work with me having a speech impedment but everyone that does know me says i am really nuts and that i am a genius so in this case what would u say am i insane just because i see things as they are, as what they can be and as what may be with every possible outcome playing though my mind in a few seconds


iammeanduareyou 6 years ago

sorry that part that says with being bored with a speech impedment is meant to say with being born with a speech impedment


Gerg profile image

Gerg 6 years ago from California Author

iammeanduareyou:

You know, I think it's really hard to answer that, because who is truly responsible for assigning value to the terms "genius" or "crazy". They are both terms of art; meaning, relative. One could argue we are all both genius and crazy on some level. The key is are we happy and are we using our gifts in a way that bring us peace and connection.

(Of course, the truly technical reader would point to the DSM IV psychiatric guidelines, but this article is not about psychiatry - it is merely an illustrative observation from one layperson's perspective...)

I appreciate your comments, iamme, and I think what matters more is what you think about your gifts and what they bring to you!

Be well,

G


iammeanduareyou 6 years ago

thank you very much


Lookatmenot 6 years ago

I think we are being quite careless with the term 'crazy' (no offence, Gerg). A little eccentric behavior, a few odd idiosyncrasies and a few unusual personal traits do not make a man alarmingly crazy. They were perhaps a few defensive tactics adapted when young, which evolved with time into the eccentricities we know. For example, Einstein's not combing his hair could have started when he found out that running his fingers through his hair while working on Physics problems at school worked, and he might have stuck to it. I am a little more strict with the usage of the term. Unless it reaches dangerous levels like that of Van Gogh's or Unabomber's, it isn't crazy at all; just a little weird.

Regards

Clark Kent.


Gerg profile image

Gerg 6 years ago from California Author

Lookatmenot: Actually, just check out the Merriam Webster definition - these are all accurate definitions: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/crazy

Unsound, crooked, askew, impractical, erratic, unusual, infatuated, obsessed are all linked to the term. I think what you are more uncomfortable with is the connotative meaning, which is what I refer to in my responses above. Again, this is a tongue-in-cheek article for humor's sake!

I do appreciate your thoughts - thank you for your comment.

G


Lookatmenot 6 years ago

Well, I said they don't make one 'alarmingly' crazy.


Gerg profile image

Gerg 6 years ago from California Author

L - I just realized you signed off as Clark Kent! You'll have to explain that one. But yes, I think we agree that idiosyncrasies (alarmingly or not) do not make a person crazy. That is actually the point of this hub - why do movies always do that and why do we so readily buy it?


Lookatmenot 6 years ago

Ah, that! That is a much-cherished, long-buried dream of turning into Superman. As a kid, I was the nerd of my class, with thick glasses and a frail physique, and did considerably well in almost all the subjects. While academically decent, I was challenged in the department of sports. Slowly, as if by magic, I began performing well at sports, too. And this led me to believe that I was in the middle of a metamorphosis-- into my idol (at that time), Superman. While I retained the clumsiness of CK in college, I never really turned into the big blue boy scout. :|

Movies are glamourized versions of our lives; people see them not just to have fun, but to-- even though many may deny it blatantly-- live through the characters they identify with vicariously, if only for a short while. While a practical response to your question would be that showing a character in its entirety-- from his odd behavioral traits to the mundane daily routines-- would stretch it beyond what our patience could hold, a more accurate response would be that it is done so because it captures our interest instantly. We wouldn't notice a Nobel laureate (most of the regular folks)if he were to walk by us in a smart suit, dressed like an average gentleman. But a slovenly, unshaven man with rumpled hair would certainly draw an extra glance. Added bonus if he has the habit of counting his steps as he walks, or muttering to himself, or occasionally spacing-out in the middle of the road.

I guess the status and fame of the people involved kinda accentuates their traits. Movie-makers just use it to make their movies a little bit more interesting.

Regards

Pradeep Srinath


Gerg profile image

Gerg 6 years ago from California Author

And there you have it! Thanks for the clarification, and for your insight, Pradeep.

Best,

G


Jeremey profile image

Jeremey 6 years ago from Arizona

Fun read, glad I found it, you've got a new "follower"!Write on , right on, write on!


Gerg profile image

Gerg 6 years ago from California Author

Thanks Jeremey - I appreciate the comment! I'll check out yours as well.


Winsome profile image

Winsome 6 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

They say crazy is doing the same thing over and over again looking for a different result. Scientists do the same thing over and over again varying it slightly to get a different result which they can analyze. (Edison, vulcanized rubber etc.) Geniuses maddeningly rarely do the same thing twice because it would be so boring. Oh and Einstein--we should all be so crazy. Thanks for a fun read. =:)


Gerg profile image

Gerg 6 years ago from California Author

Thanks Winsome. I can't explain why exactly, but you'd be surprised at how many people view this hub article on a daily basis - 2 1/2 years after I wrote it. There must be something to this genius/crazy thought pattern, whether we invented it or whether it has some validity (kind of a chicken-or-the-egg thing). Genius is a curious thing - I wonder how many geniuses think they're not and how many non-geniuses think they are. Me, I'm pretty sure I'm a non who thinks he's not...

Either way, I appreciate your read - and crazy thanks for the thoughts!


steve 5 years ago

i disagree with the general acceptance of the idea that crazy is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results... is it even possible to do the same thing over and over? conditions change... even if we are too unaware of the change... there are changes... the statement to me appears to be more about our impatience as a society... than about what the definition of crazy may be... we want it now... or never... really kinda sad... just thought i would throw my 2 cents in, as a person that people who know me think of as crazy AND genius


Gerg profile image

Gerg 5 years ago from California Author

Steve - I like your thought pattern. You distinguish the problem with that statement right off the bat when you say "is it even possible to do the same thing over and over?" I think it really depends on the level of the "thing". One could argue Edison did that in the invention of the lightbulb. On the more basic level, such as in sobriety groups, they mean a person should realize when he/she needs to change behaviors that are not working for them. Big distinction. This is a problem when trying to explain more complex thoughts in layman's language - it's bound to have problems of interpretation.

I do agree with your statement about impatience being a problem in our society - it seems we've gone from ADD kids to ADD everything, doesn't it?


noah 5 years ago

I happen to be considered a crazy genius by my friends, and I can say this: it isn't so much that I am crazy. It is just that I have been figuring out how the world works for a while now, and I have determined that whoever/whatever made it is completely insane. Most people don't see how crazy the world is in their day to day lives, but when you pay attention to the details, you realize that this world is seriously weird


Gerg profile image

Gerg 5 years ago from California Author

I can't argue with you on that, noah...

Best, G


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Interesting Hub. You write very well and I enjoyed the ride. Almost as good (forgive me for this) as the Hub are all the comments. They are lengthy, enjoyable, some off-center, some very perspicacious, and your responses are terrific. So many Hubs generate a series of polite one-liners (which are fine), but the ones that truly generate deep conversation are the best. Thanks for a great discussion.


Gerg profile image

Gerg 5 years ago from California Author

Thanks phdast7. As of now, this one hub has had over 6,200 views - the most of any of mine. And do you know how long it took me to write? About 30-45 minutes. It was just a stream of consciousness one day.

It's fascinating what captures people's attention; obviously the search terms "crazy" and "genius" are pretty high up there!

I sincerely appreciate your encouraging words...


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

So. A "throw away" hub is your highest traffic-getter. Funny how that happens. My own theory being WE don't write those hubs, they're fed to us by the Cosmos. A way to get important messages broadcast "down here" to those who need to be made aware of the information, or who sense they need it. Considering you wrote it as satire and said so, looks like some of the target audience still doesn't "get" it. Oh, well...bravo for trying.

The most important piece of this hub, for me at least, is how we should be looking at the Marvin Schlinkmanns of the world. Crazy? Or just frustrated with a world that doesn't understand how he's wired? Good point.

In my own town, there are several "street people" (all men) who congregate outside the public library and in the pocket park across the street. I know there are services and support they qualify for, but since they're the same men who've been congregating there for at least the past year, I'm guessing they prefer the street life.

After reading this hub, however, I'll no longer label them "crazy". Only "different". Maybe I'll even stop and chat with them the next time I go to the lib. An extraterrestrial encounter would be interesting...

I might add the one similarity among "crazies" is their passion. Passion about a particular subject they're good at to the exclusion of everything else, or passion about how they want to live their lives, on their own terms, not Society's.

I personally wouldn't want to wear rags or go without a shower for (possibly) weeks, but maybe such things - like clean clothes and combing one's hair - simply don't matter to them. We shouldn't assume they aren't living a rich, full life of their own making, or call them "crazy" for doing so.

Thanks for reminding me to watch "Proof" again. Although Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins are two of my favorite actors, I don't remember much about it from the first time I saw it years ago.

Voted up, funny, and awesome. ;D


Gerg profile image

Gerg 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks once again, JamaGenee. Yes, this one is over 7,700 views these days. Amazing. I think the most significant point isn't that homeless people are one way or another; the point is just to be aware of assumptions and realize each of ours might be mistaken. I'm of the believe in any societal circle, there are myriad differences in the people inside it; whether that circle consists of a gender, obesity, alcoholics, ethnic group or income bracket. No, all geniuses aren't crazy. It may just seem that way because we perhaps want to feel justified in our less-than-genius existence.

You've given me a tour through several of my hubs today, JG; some of which I haven't read in quite some time! I sincerely appreciate the support.

Best,

G


klarawieck 4 years ago

Yes, sometimes crazy is just crazy, but I could very well be homeless Marvin since I do see and talk to people in a separate plane of existence.

I'll throw two ideas your way, you tell me what you think. As a classical pianist I will tell you that I've found many people who are the "crazy mathematician" type - very eccentric, misfits, etc. But in the case of musicians I think it's due to lack of opportunities to socialize during childhood. I remember going to school, coming home, showering, eating, sitting at the piano for four hours, then doing homework, and going to bed. So, the little time I had to play wasn't enough. And I'm nowhere close to the genius level, but I do know that the musicians who do make it because they're outstanding in their artistry, have spent their entire lives practicing and lack in all other areas.

About mathematics and being plain weird... I can't really say much about it. I did have a math teacher in high school that looked and acted very much like the scientist from Back to The Future. I don't think he was trying to be weird, he just... was. But I've come to notice that there are two types of musicians. Those who have great technique tend to be great at math but struggle with interpretation (being able to interpret the feeling within the music.} Those who are great interpreters tend to struggle with technique and usually stink at math (that would be me.)

Great article. I really enjoyed it.


Gerg profile image

Gerg 4 years ago from California Author

I know life is a series of choices, but I fall into the category of one who wishes he'd continued with piano and guitar lessons. So I admire that you followed through, and would love to hear something you've recorded. I think music is amazing; I use allegory referring to music all the time - words being lyrical, etc. Maybe because I tend to be an auditory learner. You know this about someone when they tend to make points in threes when writing - or when they misspell, it's two words that sound alike, but are actually different.

Anyway, I do have my guitar in my room, and need to pick it up again ... and re-callous my fingers so I can actually do chord progressions without whining!

Back to this hub - it really was all in jest. My mind just processes things in metaphorical ways - and I'm told I make references to movies a lot. As a result, many of my hubs pull in movie references.

I actually admire Einstein mostly because he bridged both mathematics and philosophy (perspective), which made him truly unique. More often, like you say, highly gifted folks who spend so much of their lives in one endeavor often lack in other areas.

Thanks Klara ~


klarawieck 4 years ago

Aw.... no whining, Greg! Pick up that guitar and learn. With your sensitive nature, you'd be an excellent interpreter.

About Einstein - let's not forget he was a pretty dedicated violinist as well. But my theory might be correct, most people agreed that he had pretty good technique and not much feeling in his playing.


Gerg profile image

Gerg 4 years ago from California Author

... probably too busy postulating.


lafamillia profile image

lafamillia 4 years ago from Soutcentral Europe

... Hey! Nice hub, and I wrote a similar one today, except the one about Novak - too. Check out my hub, and EXPERT STUDIES done in field of lunatic = genius ?

And, keep up the good work!


Gerg profile image

Gerg 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks lafamilia - I'll check it out!


Goo Poo 4 years ago

Are all crazy people geniuses?


Gerg profile image

Gerg 4 years ago from California Author

It's a matter of perspective, ain't it?


Vincent 3 years ago

What can we consider crazy if we only see visual behavior but dont see inside their mind. Sure it may seem crazy if a Genius has multiple personalities in his mind. But what if all those personalities are helping him solve certain problems in math or physics. What if they all workout different portions to lower the amount of stress on one personality or brain section??? Maybe their brain adapts to increase efficency by increasing focus on parts due to the over all burden being spread out in their mind. And then the final results added together.

Sure people would consider them crazy, but they will end up influencing the world far beyond the level a regular mind. People break frontiers by thinking different and stepping outside the box. Sometimes the only way to think outside the box a lot is for the mind to live outside the box. Most minds are bound to their realality/Boundaries/Prison.


Gerg profile image

Gerg 3 years ago from California Author

There are actually a number of truths in your response, Vincent, and there are actually very specific diagnostic criteria matching the scenarios you've described - for example, people with high functioning Asburger's. But that doesn't really matter - the bottom line is that we are each distinct in our mental processing. The fascinating thing about writing online for me is that you can meet people at a deeper, more meaningful level than you might in everyday conversation.

Thanks for your feedback.


Shinkicker profile image

Shinkicker 3 years ago from Scotland

Thanks or an interesting read Gerg. A fine line between genius and madness sometimes, In artists too, the 'poet needs the pain' kind of thing I suppose


Gerg profile image

Gerg 3 years ago from California Author

Thanks Shinkicker - interesting pseudonym, by the way!

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