Is insanity the secret companion to genius? Though we can't very well perform psychological examinations on those who are long dead, that hasn't stopped historians from speculating about the mental conditions of deceased geniuses by interpreting their personal letters, their works and others' accounts. It turns out some of the world's greatest geniuses were quite mad. In fact, some scientists claim that a far greater percentage of creative types (poets, painters, musicians and the like) have been afflicted with bipolar disorder than the general population. Some of the world's most renowned creative minds, including writers Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, and Ernest Hemingway; composers Irving Berlin and Sergey Rachmaninoff; and painters Paul Gauguin and Jackson Pollock are all believed to have suffered from the illness [source: Patient Health International].
Despite evidence of a link between genius and madness, no one has proved that such a link exists. However, scientists at the University of Toronto have discovered that creative people possess little to no "latent inhibition," the unconscious ability to reject unimportant or irrelevant stimuli. As University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson puts it, "This means that creative individuals remain in contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment. The normal person classifies an object, and then forgets about it, even though that object is much more complex and interesting than he or she thinks. The creative person, by contrast, is always open to new possibilities" [source: University of Toronto].
Let's take a look at these mad geniuses -- the famous thinkers and artists who may have experienced mental illness. First, we'll inspect the modern case of John Nash, whose schizophrenia has been sensationalized by Hollywood.
5: John Nash (1928 - )
The award-winning film "A Beautiful Mind" popularized the story of John Nash. Nash is a world-renowned mathematician who struggled with paranoid schizophrenia after coming up with significant contributions to the concept of game theory. The idea of the "Nash Equilibrium," which discusses whether players in a game can benefit if one of them changes a strategy, can be applied to various fields, including economics. The U.S. Military even adopted tactics based off his ideas to use for the Cold War [source: Singh].
Although the film (based on Sylvia Nasar's biography of the same name) takes liberties with the true story of Nash's life, he did experience hallucinations and delusions. His hallucinations included hearing voices, but not seeing people or things that weren't there. He began to have delusions of grandeur and believed that major world figures were out to get him [source: PBS]. After spending about 30 years struggling with the disorder and spending time in and out of hospitals, he was able to make a significant recovery in the late 1980s. In 1994, John Nash received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his early work with game theory.
John Nash suggests that irrational thought actually has its benefits. Discussing his recovery from schizophrenia, Nash remarks that it is not "entirely a matter of joy" for him. He explains: "One aspect of this is that rationality of thought imposes a limit on a person's concept of his relation to the cosmos" [source: Nash].
Learn about other mad geniuses on the next page.
4: Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890)
Vincent van Gogh's paintings, such as "Starry Night" are quickly recognizable by their unique brushwork and expression. However, it was not until after his death that van Gogh gained popularity. Now he is considered among the greatest painters in history.
Van Gogh's life was a tortured one. Almost everyone knows the painter cut off part of his own ear. He also supposedly drank turpentine and tried to eat paint [source: Mancoff]. Tragically, he committed suicide in 1890. Authors D. Jablow Hershman and Dr. Julian Lieb propose in their book "Manic Depression and Creativity" that van Gogh had bipolar disorder. In her book "Touched with Fire," Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison reaches the same conclusion. She also discusses van Gogh's art in relation to his mental illness. For instance, she notes that the typical seasonal patterns of moods and psychosis align with van Gogh's productivity, which also varied by the season. Others think he suffered from schizophrenia [source: Delisi].
Next, we'll see whose genius echoes evermore.
3: Edgar Allan Poe (1809 - 1849)
Best known for his poem "The Raven," writer Edgar Allan Poe wrote compelling horror and detective stories as well. He put great emphasis on form and structure in his taut short stories. His short story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," published in 1841, is often called the first modern detective story.
Despite his skill as a writer, it is well known that Poe had a drinking problem, and letters reveal that he struggled with suicidal thoughts. The causes and circumstances around his death at 40 years old are unknown, but perhaps have to do with heart failure or his drinking. Based on her interpretation of Poe's letters, Kay Redfield Jamison speculates that Poe was a manic-depressive, a condition known today as bipolar disorder. In her book, she argues that creativity like Poe's can spring from states of mania. From the mind-sickness emerges a "cosmic" perspective that lets creative juices flow, she writes.
Edgar Allan Poe may have seen a connection between creativity and mental illness, himself. He wrote:
"Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence -- whether much that is glorious -- whether all that is profound -- does not spring from disease of thought -- from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect" [Source: Jamison].
On the next page, learn all about the mad musical genius on this list.
2: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Beethoven's contributions to music were monumental. His passionate intensity and brilliant design brought instrumental music to a new level. However, the famous composer had a hard life. Raised by an abusive, alcoholic father, Beethoven was responsible for the well-being of his struggling family by the age of 18. One of the most tragic aspects of his life was his gradual descent into deafness, which occurred between the ages of 30 and 49 and may have come as a result of his father's beatings. Remarkably, he was able to compose some of his most esteemed work after losing his hearing.
His internal struggle is documented in letters to his brothers, where he discussed his flirtation with suicide. Authors Hershman and Lieb propose in their book that Beethoven probably struggled with bipolar disorder. In addition, Francois Martin Mai brings up the possibility that he specifically suffered from bipolar depression in the book "Diagnosing Genius." Mai argues that, despite his tendencies toward depression, Beethoven had periods of intensity and vigor consistent with bipolar disorder. Examinations and tests of Beethoven's hair recently revealed a dangerously high lead content [source: Walsh]. This could have triggered not only his mental illness but also the digestive maladies of which he often complained.
Beethoven may rule the music world, but who's possibly the greatest scientist of all time? Find out on the next page.
1: Sir Isaac Newton (1642 - 1727)
With numerous and far-reaching contributions to physics and mechanics, Sir Isaac Newton is universally known as a brilliant thinker. Indeed, polls of both scientists and the public show an agreement that Newton even surpasses Einstein in influence [source: The Royal Society]. Some of his notable contributions include inventing calculus, explaining "universal gravitation," developing laws of motion and building the first reflective telescope.
Despite his many achievements, Newton suffered from psychotic tendencies and mood swings (including wildly enthusiastic periods), and he was often difficult to get along with [source: Encyclopedia Britannica, Salas]. Hershman and Lieb also theorize in their book that Newton probably suffered from bipolar disorder [source: Stamp Out Stigma]. In addition, his delusional letters lend credence to the theory that he was schizophrenic [source: Glover]. Newton's father died before he was born, and he was separated from his mother between the ages of two and 11. His mental disorder might have been a result of this prolonged traumatic childhood experience [source: Encyclopedia Britannica].
To learn more about geniuses and other topics, go on to the next page.
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More Great Links
- "Beethoven, Ludwig van." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
- "Gogh, Vincent van." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
- "Newton, Sir Isaac." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
- "Poe, Edgar Allan." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
- Delisi, Lynn E. "100 Questions & Answers About Schizophrenia: Painful Minds." Johns & Bartlett, 2006. (Mar. 4, 2008) http://books.google.com/books?id=TKMTxMoiJTgC&printsec=frontcoverq=van+gogh+schizophrenia&lr=&source=gbs_summary_r
- Glover, John A., Royce R. Ronning, Cecil R. Reynolds. "Handbook of Creativity." Springer, 1989. (Feb. 29, 2008) http://books.google.com/books?id=O0Ynnxqf2u0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=sir+isaac+newton+depression&as_brr=3&source=gbs_summary_r
- Mancoff, Debra N. "Vincent van Gogh's Biography." HowStuffWorks.com. (Feb. 29, 2008) http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/vincent-van-gogh-biography4.htm
- NAMI. "People with Mental Illness Enrich Our Lives." (Feb. 29, 2008) http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=Helpline1&template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=4858
- NAMI. "People with Mental Illness Enrich Our Lives." National Alliance on Mental Illness. (Feb., 29, 2008) http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=Helpline1&template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=4858
- Nash, John F Jr. "Autobiography." Nobelprize.org. (Feb. 29, 2008) http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/1994/nash-autobio.html
- PBS. "Interview with John Nash." American Experience. (Feb. 29, 2008) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/nash/sfeature/sf_nash.html
- Salas, Laura Purdie. Tr. By Emily C. S. Reynolds.http://books.google.com/books?id=VuLeJSh6WUAC&dq=isaac+newton+bipolar&source=gbs_summary_s&cad=0
- Patient Health International. "The Mad Genius: Fact or Fiction?" September 27, 2004 (August 12, 2008)http://www.patienthealthinternational.com/features/3118.aspx
- Singh, Simon. "Between Genius and Madness." June 14, 1998. New York Times. (Feb. 29, 2008) http://22.214.171.124/search?q=cache:kpLoiGRjJCIJ:www.nytimes.com/books/98/06/14/reviews/980614.14singht.html+Between+Genius+and+Madness&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=2&gl=us&client=firefox-a
- Stamp Out Stigma. "Famous People with Mental Illness." (Mar. 4, 2008) http://www.stampoutstigma.org/famous.html
- The Royal Society. "Newton beats Einstein in polls of scientists and the public." Nov. 23, 2005. Press Release. (Feb. 29, 2008) http://royalsociety.org/news.asp?id=3880
- University Of Toronto. "Biological Basis For Creativity Linked To Mental Illness." ScienceDaily October 1, 2003. (August 14, 2008) http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2003/10/031001061055.htm
- Walsh, William J. "Press Conference October 17, 2000." San Jose State University. (Feb. 29, 2008) http://www.sjsu.edu/depts/beethoven/hair/hairtestpc.html
- Wolf, Paul. "Francois Martin Mai's 'Diagnosing Genius' reviewed in the NEJM." McGill-Queen's University Press. (Feb. 29, 2008) http://mqup.typepad.com/mcgill_queens_university_/francois_mai_diagnosing_genius/index.html