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The Mental Disorder Behind The Genius

Updated on August 17, 2015

Brief Introduction

The basis of this article is to unveil some of the mysteries of the brain and how it is associated to a mental disorder and a genius. Along the project some examples of history icons and contemporaneous geniuses will be given. First a definition of mental disorder, its types and different symptoms. Secondly a brief explanation on lateralization of the brain and how each hemisphere is better developed to perform a certain task. Followed by a summary on how the mental disorder is connected to the genius and how Savant Syndrome empowers the brain specifically Kim Peek’s. Finally, the article concludes with a reflection on how a mental disorder can be a powerful creative tool and how it has helped men and women innovate in their ways of thinking and producing work.

Virginia Woolf suffered from Depression
Virginia Woolf suffered from Depression

"Dissecting" The Mental Disorder

Also called mental illness or psychiatric disorder may have mental, behavioral or anomaly causes. It affects every age group and genre, the origin of most mental conditions is not yet fully known, but modern science has dissected the brain and we can now comprehend them better. Symptoms vary from disorder to disorder, and while some might be minor, most variety of mental illnesses unable people from having a normal life. According to Mayo Clinic: “most common psychiatric disorders are depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors”. Symptoms are continues sadness, reduced ability to concentrate, mood changes, suicidal thinking, paranoia, among many others. It is not uncommon for people to undergo psychiatric accompaniment to help them overcome or endure certain aspects of their life or even themselves. Severe illnesses require people to take prescribed drugs on a regular basis, otherwise they would not be able to properly function. Many mental disorders are genetic, and in cases of illnesses as Autism, Asperger and Down syndrome. In some countries such as Portugal, parents can legally choose to abort the baby (within the established time limit of 24 weeks) if proven it carries such disorder. Is our brain betraying us? Why can mentally ill people function well for some aspects in life and perform so differently in others?  

John Nash suffered from Schizophrenia "A Beautiful Mind" movie was based on his life
John Nash suffered from Schizophrenia "A Beautiful Mind" movie was based on his life

Lateralization Of The Brain

The brain is part of the nervous system and Neuroscience is the area of science responsible for its studies. Neuroscience led us to discover different parts of the brain have different tasks. In fact, the brain is divided into two hemispheres, the left and the right. Left side being responsible for logic, analysis and objectivity, while the right side is responsible for intuitivism, thoughtfulness and subjectivism. One can might even say the left side processes calculus and logical thinking while the right side processes language and creative thinking. Although this statement is not supported by scientists, which believe both hemispheres contribute to both processes. The first person to develop a theory on the right brain-left brain subject was the American Neuropsychologist and Neurobiologist Roger Wolcott Sperry. While studying the causes of epilepsy, Sperry discovered by cutting the corpus collosum (white matter structure connecting left and right hemispheres) that the seizures would be reduced or eliminated. Even though Roger Sperry was the first to develop a theory, there already had been previous researches dating back from the 19th century. One of the first was conducted by French physician Pierre Paul Broca in 1861. Broca was able to associate a patient left side brain injury with his inability to produce a normal and fluent speech. Through the given examples of studies and observations we can determine indeed there is a connection between different parts of the brain and different tasks we naturally perform as humans. What if those disabilities could be turned into sharpened skills?

Historians theorize Isaac Newton suffered from a wide range of mental ilnesses
Historians theorize Isaac Newton suffered from a wide range of mental ilnesses

Link Between Genius and Mental Disorder

The world has been led and guided by some of the most impressive human, history records. People with special skills who marked an era and are today studied, recognized and honored. From literature to music, politics to art, many are the faces, many are the names, countless are their tragic stories. Numerous are the icons of society whom biographies recall traces, often diagnosed, mental disorders. Is it not familiar to us the figure of the outcast genius in films and books? Culture retells and reworks reality, and geniuses are among us hidden in strange faces and attitudes. According to a study lead by Dr. James MacCabe and published by British Journal of Psychiatry: “It is plausible to assume that subjects having the ability to rapidly process information may share the same neurobiological characteristics as subjects who develop mania, a state characterized by high alertness and psychomotor activity. It is tempting to speculate that good arithmetic or psychomotor performance may have contributed in human evolution to the persistence of bipolar disorder, which is strongly genetically transmitted and associated with a high mortality rate.” Dr. MacCabe also believes “a mild form of mania can cause people to have greater stamina and concentration, and link ideas in innovative ways, as can unusually strong emotional responses”. Therefore we can assume the brain somehow compensates the lack of an ability with another. Sharpening it with the focus and dedication the person gives to the subject or task. Perhaps that is the foundation of talent, an unusual developed brain within someone who dedicates time and effort to it. It would explain why we can develop a skill if we practice, while being able to maintain the average mental health. Opposing to people with severe mental disorders who are able to master it and underperform in average daily tasks.

Documentary on Savants

Savant Syndrome- With Great Brain Power Comes Great Disability

One may often wonder what the maximum capacity of a brain is, does it resemble a computer? Would a very highly intelligent person be able live an independent normal life? A mental illness named Savant Syndrome is the purest example of how a human brain can be so powerful yet so dependent. According to Wisconsin Medical Society: “Savant syndrome is a rare, but extraordinary, condition in which persons with serious mental disabilities, including autistic disorder, have some ‘island of genius’ that stands in marked, incongruous contrast to overall handicap.” The syndrome has different degrees of condition and it is occasionally found in autistic persons. The media have brought to light some outstanding men and women who suffer from this syndrome and who are overwhelming gifted. Stephen Wiltshire is a British architectural artist able to draw a wide panoramic picture of the center of Rome perfectly after only looking at the view for forty five minutes on a helicopter drive. As it can be seen on the documentary series “Beautiful Minds: A Voyage Into the Brain” by Petra Höfer and Freddie Röckenhaus. Daniel Tammet also known as “Brainman” is able to recite from memory Pi to 22,514 decimal places, he speaks eleven languages one of which is Icelandic. He learned Icelandic in a week as of a challenge proposed by Channel Five documentary in 2007 to him, aimed to raise funds for the National Society for Epilepsy. Stunt which turned him famous and originated more discussion around the subject mainly due to the fact Daniel is not an average Savant. He does not have a severe case of autism or other disorder, he does have minor autism, but it does not enable him in any way.

Documentary on Kim Peek (Rainman movie inspiration)

Kim Peek: A Human Computer

The American Savant Kim Peek also known as a “megasavant” was a man suffering with congenital brain abnormalities but yet was able to memorize more than 12,000 books word by word including the Bible. He could read one page with his left eye while reading another with his right, in under ten seconds. He memorized phone books and was able to recall the date of a past event. On the other side of the condition, there is a much more powerless and unremarkable man who was dependent of his father thought all life. The same brain able to provide him such unerring memory and focus, leaves him hopeless in a world he cannot survive by his own. Is he conscientious of his knowledge, can we define it knowledge if he is not able to apply it? Or is he more of a human database able to respond with exact answers to given keywords? One thing we can be sure, Kim Peek’s brain holds the key to unlock brain’s full proficiency. Perhaps we will one day discover how to recreate the disorder with the benefits and without the negative o the disorder. Imagine how it would be if we could all achieve the maximum of intelligence. Possibly many would turn such ability towards creative process. Unfortunately this great man as already passed away but his life is proof that great minds can do great things. The film Rain Man by Barry Levinson is based on Kim Peek and portraits the fictional story of a Savant and his aptitude for math.

Van Gogh suffered from Bipolar Disorder
Van Gogh suffered from Bipolar Disorder

Mental Disorder As A Creative Tool

Depression, mood swings, paranoia and many more are the symptoms we commonly associate most of our idols. Writers, painters, politicians, the most innovative men and women in history are often connected to a family background of mental disorders or are mentally ill themselves. As mentioned before mental disorders lead people to think out-of-the-box. Associate different concepts never thought before, as example when Da Vinci associated planes with birds, or Einstein with its revolutionary theory who related matter to energy. They all devoted their thoughts and work life to what they loved, what made them express their creativity. In the beginning of this essay it is said different hemispheres of the brain correspond to different aptitudes of the person, when one of those hemispheres is hyper-developed subsequently a special aptitude may be hyper-developed as well. We can surely recall the names of many writers, who were as famous for their writing as they were for their loneliness. Their works are proof of that, they often tell us how mentally tormented they feel and how the world challenges their emotions. Enclosed in their rooms or their studies they chain all their problems into a creative process that is usually some kind of self-therapy or expression of opinion. John Nash formulated The Game Theory while suffering from schizophrenia on its peak. Sá Carneiro was a lonely emotionally troubled writer who wrote his most beautiful work before he committed suicide. Virginia Woolf writing is deeply affected by her depression, as is the case of Florbela Espanca in Portugal. James Fallon, neurobiologist at the University of California-Irvine says "People with bipolar tend to be creative when they're coming out of deep depression,". When a bipolar patient's mood improves, his brain activity changes: “activity dies down in the lower part of a brain region called the frontal lobe, and flares up in a higher part of that lobe.” The same change occurs when people have bouts of creativity. While there are many doubts about how the brain functions, one thing we can be certain the most psychiatric disordered people produce the most beautiful innovative art. Let us all embrace our moments of “madness” and chain it into creativity.  

The Psychology of Creativity by Professor Glenn D. Wilson

Resources and References

“Definition” article by Mayo Clinic, retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/basics/definition/con-20033813

“Left Brain vs Right Brain” article by Psychology Expert Kendra Cherry, retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/cognitivepsychology/a/left-brain-right-brain.htm

Personal testimony of Bita Almeida Lupi Belo, retrieved from http://aborto.aaldeia.net/trissomia-21-aborto/

“Intelligence Linked to Bipolar Disorder” article by Jane Collingwood, retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/lib/intelligence-linked-to-bipolar-disorder/5518/

“Savant Syndrome: An Extraordinary Condition” article by Darold A. Treffert, MD, retrieved from https://www.wisconsinmedicalsociety.org/professional/savant-syndrome/savant-syndrome-overview/

Article on The Guardian by Ed Pilkington, retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/dec/22/kim-peek-rain-man-dies

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    • Readmikenow profile image

      Readmikenow 20 months ago

      Excellent article. I really enjoyed reading it. Good work.

    • StephanPoe profile image
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      StephanPoe 20 months ago

      Thank you for taking the time to read it I hope it was as interesting to you as it is to me

    • wordswithlove profile image

      Neetu M 20 months ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      Very informative hub, Stephan. The human mind will always astound, confound and baffle us. While mental disorders will never be fully understood or treated, there is clearly a correlation between genius and extraordinary workings of the brain. Not all disorders indicate brilliance, of course, but a good deal of the brilliant psyche has elements that do not conform to what we might call "normal".

    • StephanPoe profile image
      Author

      StephanPoe 20 months ago

      Thank you words with love. Although I believe one day we will "Crack the code" and understand mental disorders, it won't be in our time, but when it happens it will be a step closer into unlocking brains maximum capabilities. I strongly believe we can do it. We have to.

    • VationSays profile image

      VationSays 20 months ago

      Interesting read. Immediately went and Googled Daniel Tammet.

    • StephanPoe profile image
      Author

      StephanPoe 20 months ago

      Hello Vation! Perhaps I should have added the documentary on Daniel Tammet. Glad you enjoyed the information.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 20 months ago from Texas

      Stephan, very well written hub. I know a autistic young who is brilliant, and your hub reminds me of him. But it is not just the disorders mentioned here, there was Helen Keller who was in my opinion a genius.

      If we could still vote, I would give this a thumb up, Useful, Awesome, and Interesting.

      Have a blessed day and welcome to HubPages.

    • StephanPoe profile image
      Author

      StephanPoe 20 months ago

      Thank you so much for your feedback Shyron. Perhaps I should add a list of mental disorders to the hub and give some cultural examples such as "code Mercury" the movie with the autistic kid who broke that high security code.

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