When John Forbes Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician, schizophrenic, and paranoid delusional, was asked how he could believe that space aliens had recruited him to save the world, he gave a simple response. “Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”
Nash is hardly the only so-called mad genius in history. Suicide victims like painters Vincent Van Gogh and Mark Rothko, novelists Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway, and poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath all offer prime examples. Even ignoring those great creators who did not kill themselves in a fit of deep depression, it remains easy to list persons who endured well-documented psychopathology, including the composer Robert Schumann, the poet Emily Dickinson, and Nash. Creative geniuses who have succumbed to alcoholism or other addictions are also legion.
Instances such as these have led many to suppose that creativity and psychopathology are intimately related. Indeed, the notion that creative genius might have some touch of madness goes back to Plato and Aristotle. But some recent psychologists argue that the whole idea is a pure hoax. After all, it is certainly no problem to come up with the names of creative geniuses who seem to have displayed no signs or symptoms of mental illness.
The most important process underlying strokes of creative genius is the tendency to pay attention to things that normally should be ignored or filtered out.
Opponents of the mad genius idea can also point to two solid facts. First, the number of creative geniuses in the entire history of human civilization is very large. Thus, even if these people were actually less prone to psychopathology than the average person, the number with mental illness could still be extremely large. Second, the permanent inhabitants of mental asylums do not usually produce creative masterworks. The closest exception that anyone might imagine is the notorious Marquis de Sade. Even in his case, his greatest (or rather most sadistic) works were written while he was imprisoned as a criminal rather than institutionalized as a lunatic.
So should we believe that creative genius is connected with madness or not? Modern empirical research suggests that we should because it has pinpointed the connection between madness and creativity clearly. The most important process underlying strokes of creative genius is cognitive disinhibition—the tendency to pay attention to things that normally should be ignored or filtered out by attention because they appear irrelevant.1
When Alexander Fleming noticed that a blue mold was killing off the bacteria culture in his petri dish, he could have just tossed the latter into the autoclave like any of his colleagues might have done. Instead, Fleming won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of penicillin, the antibacterial agent derived from the mold Penicillium notatum. Many people have gone for a walk in the woods and returned with annoying burrs attached to their clothing, but only George de Mestral decided to investigate further with a microscope, and thereby discover the basis for Velcro.
Cognitive disinhibition proves no less beneficial in the arts than in the sciences. Artistic geniuses will often report how the germ for a major creative project came from hearing a tiny piece of casual conversation or seeing a unique but otherwise trivial event during a daily walk. For example, Henry James reported in his preface to The Spoils of Poynton that the germ of the story came from an allusion made by a woman sitting beside him at Christmas Eve dinner.
Exceptional intelligence alone yields useful but unoriginal and unsurprising ideas.
But cognitive disinhibition has a dark side: It is positively associated with psychopathology. For example, schizophrenics find themselves bombarded with hallucinations and delusions that they would be much better off filtering out.2 So why don’t the two groups become the same group? According to Harvard University psychologist Shelly Carson, the creative geniuses enjoy the asset of superior general intelligence. This intelligence introduces the necessary cognitive control that enables the person to separate the wheat from the chaff. Bizarre fantasies are divorced from realistic possibilities.
According to this conception, high intelligence is essential to creative genius, but only insofar as it collaborates with cognitive disinhibition. Exceptional intelligence alone yields useful but unoriginal and unsurprising ideas. Marilyn vos Savant made it into the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s highest recorded IQ, and yet has not managed to find a cure for cancer or even build a better mousetrap.
Some domains of creativity put far more emphasis on usefulness than on originality and surprise. In such cases, the vulnerability shared between genius and madness becomes much less critical. For example, psychopathology can be negatively correlated with creative genius in the hard sciences.3 The interesting exception are the scientific revolutionaries who go against the prevailing paradigms.4 For them, the relation is almost as positive as found for artists and writers.
But many geniuses do walk the line between the normal and the abnormal. For them, the barrage of impulses and ideas they perceive is a fount of creativity. As Nash said after an extended period of delusional thinking, his return to a more rational phase was “not entirely a matter of joy.” To explain why, he gave another simple reply. “Rationality of thought imposes a limit on a person’s concept of his relation to the cosmos.”
Dean Keith Simonton is a distinguished professor at the department of psychology at the University of California, Davis.