Genius comes in all forms and types, from those with a creative bent in the arts – writers, painters and musicians – to those in the sciences – physicists, mathematicians and philosophers. As Aristotle also asked: “Why are all people who have excelled in philosophy, poetry or the arts melancholic?”
The presence of the psychopathology of scientists is now recognized, and being pushed now more than ever before.
But as one mental health expert has pointed out, “mental health is a continuum – everyone lies somewhere on the spectrum – and there’s a loose coupling between the capacity to think originally and mental health”. New research – mainly due to the ability to diagnose retrospectively – through research that actually focused on Asperger’s syndrome, as this is a high-functioning form of Autism, characterized by narrow interests and “orcaholism” – which are typical of scientific minds.
An investment and study of a decade has been carried out by Felix Post, a physiologist in London. Published in 1994 in the British Journal of Psychiatry, Post’s investigation “aimed to determine the prevalence of various psychopathologies in exceptionally creative individuals.”
He used data drawn from renowned biographers to assess the mental health of scientists and inventors, thinkers and researchers, statesmen and national leaders, painters and sculptors, composers, novelists and dramatists.
He studied 45 male scientists, including such notable names as Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Ernest Rutherford, Erwin Schrodinger and Gregor Mendel – who were found to suffer from mild, moderate or severe forms of psychopathology.
He concluded that about one-third of scientists, composers, and artists did not suffer from psychopathology, which meant that two-thirds did. But there is a bias, as Raj Perso, professor and consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in London points out, “The other problem is that when biographers write about the characteristics of intelligence throughout history, there is a tendency to highlight eccentric behaviours, for because they are interesting and this can lead to a diagnosis of mental illness.
But it is also possible that in genius or very creative people, the definition of a mental illness is seen as an excuse for some bad behavior, when in fact they have simply behaved badly,” he says. Perso points out that “known geniuses are those who must interact in a positive way with society, and therefore must have a certain number of social skills”.
People with mental illnesses such as Asperger’s often lack the real skills they need to succeed, like convincing their peers of their greatness? Meanwhile, Perso asks: “If Asperger’s is associated with genius, why should we label the large number of people with this syndrome who are not geniuses?” Put the question another way, and it turns out that you have to be crazy to be a genius – the answer is no, but maybe crazy can help.
As Harvard University psychologist William James recently pointed out: “When a superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament grow together—as in an infinite combination of human choices, they are often forced to act together in sufficient way—in the same individual we have the best possible conditions for the kind of effective genius which belongs in the biographical dictionaries.”