Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Intertwining of Genius and Insanity

"Maker" by Eugenia Loli

More than two millennia ago Aristotle said no great genius has ever existed without a touch of madness. His teacher, Plato, had discussed madness extensively and divided it into different types; mainly clinical insanity and creative insanity the divine one which inspires seers and poets. Today, we still hear that genius borders on insanity and that every great human has a spark of madness. But how is that so? And what does insanity really mean?

For a sapiosexual philomath who has been constantly called crazy by those who know him and those who don
t, Ive been meaning to delve into that allusive topic for quite a while. So here it is.

Let us first start by the definition of the word crazy as it appears in dictionaries. For simplicity’s sake, I will be using crazy, insane’, and mad interchangeably in this exposé. There are two meaning to the adjective crazy when describing people.

  1. Mentally deranged, especially as manifested in a wild or aggressive way; a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction; seriously mentally ill.


    Mad, insane, out of ones mind, deranged, demented, not in ones right mind, crazed, lunatic, non compos mentis, unhinged, mad as a hatter, mad as a March hare.

    :Mental, nutty, nutty as a fruitcake, off ones
    rocker, not right in the head, round/around the bend, raving mad, batty, bonkers, cuckoo, loopy, ditzy, loony, bananas, loco, with a screw loose, touched, gaga, not all there, out to lunch, crackers, nutso, out of ones tree, wacko, gonzo, batshit.

  2. Extremely enthusiastic.

    Passionate about, (very) keen on, enamored of, infatuated with, smitten with, devoted to.
    (very) enthusiastic about, fanatical about.

    Informal:Wild about, mad about, nuts about, hog-wild about, gone on.

There is an additional informal use for the word madcommonly used in British, and it means angry or furious.

So by definition, already the term crazy has paradoxical meanings. To be wild in an aggressive way could actually be the opposite of passionate and devoted in an enthusiastic way. Or could they?

What’s a Genius?

The word genius originates from Latin genius, meaning guardian deity or guiding spirit (tutelary deity) which watches over each person from birth; spirit, incarnation, wit, talent; also “prophetic skill,” originally “generative power”. The noun is related to the Latin verb genui, genitus, to bring into being, create, produce”. This sense comes from the Latin gignere, which means “to produce”, resembling jinnī in Arabic. It lives on in todays vocabulary with genie.

Because the achievements of exceptional individuals seemed to indicate the presence of a particularly powerful genius, by the time of Augustus the word began to acquire its secondary meaning of “inspiration, talent”. The meaning shifted from having a genius to being a genius, as someone with exceptional natural ability. This sense was commonly used in the English language by the beginning of the 17th century.

Labelling someone a genius is not about being highly intelligent. Neither is it about having an exceptionally high IQ, which many see as not an accurate way to reflect how smart a person really is, since tests only measure a limited part of the total intelligence, and not the full cognitive abilities — like short-term memory, reasoning and verbal components. Some even believe high test scores have little to do with real genius because IQ is an ambiguous and controversial measure that is only considered useful in conjunction with other tests conducted by professionals.

How many times have we seen or known someone who has brilliant memory but poor reasoning, or great language skills but bad memory, or a superthinker who isn
t too eloquent with words? A lot. Such people could be intelligent who can probably easily adapt to different circumstances. But, thats not enough for genius. Genius transcends the intelligence label because they excel in whatever they put their mind into.

Not all intelligent people are geniuses, but all geniuses are highly intelligent.
Genius, actually, has an additional talent which Einstein has called intelligence having fun,
and thats CREATIVITY.

A genius has a creative mind that is much more imaginative and constructive than a mere intelligent person.
This creativity leads to invention which is one of the essential requirements of genius. Resonating with Arthur Schopenhauer words, talent hits a target no one else can hit while genius hits a target no one else can see.

Intelligence, is defined as having the capacity for thought and reason especially to a high level, possessing sound knowledge. Linguistically speaking, the word
brilliant usually comes after it, which means having or marked by unusual and impressive intelligence. Then at the top comes genius, who is brilliant, talented, and highly creative. That is why they hit targets no one even knows about. 

Image by Dreamstime ⠀⠀

Conventional wisdom tells us that a genius is different from everyone else because they see the world through different eyes. They are those who have extraordinary intellectual ability and originality. While the exceptional intelligence is central to genius, as some of them have IQs of 140 and higher, not all geniuses score well on intelligence tests or perform well in school. As a matter of fact, many prodigy children were told by their teachers that they werent going to amount to anything, and they were proven wrong. This could be the case because to conform may seem stupid to a genius.

Apart from higher brain activity, genius also entails a vigorous sense of curiosity. A genius is someone who can always see the bigger picture of things; someone who is commonly known as ahead of their times and who breaks new ground with their discoveries, inventions or works of art. Usually, the geniuss work — creation — changes the way people view the world or the field in which the work took place. Their influence is so immense and powerful that they frequently shift paradigms.

In some cases, the recognition only comes after the person is dead. And thats because it takes some time for others, the majority, to catch up and understand them or the genius behind their works. As Timothy Leary puts it, Nobody ever understands what a pioneer is doing”.

But generally speaking, whoever is called a genius is he who goes beyond being an intelligent person; their intellect must be coupled with the ability to use that intelligence in a productive or inspiring way.

So beside than the biological differences that may be there, whats the secret of genius? Well, it is established that one of the traits of those highly creative people is the ability to disregard unimportant and insignificant distractions. Without the distraction, they get a better opportunity to concentrate on what they are doing in their Here and Now. Whatever it is they are into, they are able to keep doing it consistently and with perseverance with “indefatigable assiduity” and thats how geniuses habitually excel and achieve things no one has before. Even Einstein himself said that he has no special talent and that he is only passionately curious. And in such sense, being extremely enthusiastic and passionate, Einstein was definitely crazy, highly crazy too.

In psychology, this disregarding the unimportant behaviour in a creative genius is described as little or no latent inhibition”. Meaning, they have an subconscious ability to reject unimportant or irrelevant stimuli, which naturally allows them to remain in­ contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from everywhere around them. The genius is much more conscious of their surrounding than the average Joe; for they constantly observe the patterns in life and learn from them. American philosopher and psychologist William James considered this art of knowing what to overlook to be actual wisdom. Much earlier Rumi said more or less the same: The art of knowing is knowing what to ignore.

As University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson explains,This means that 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”.

Another less discussed characteristic of genius is the remarkable ability to recognise genius in others, which in itself is an act of genius. That is, seeing through the madness or the apparent sanity.


Now let us foolosophise a little, shall we. Sanity is essentially a societal concept. And just like other concepts, the average — the majority — get to form it. The average dont like their safe world view challenged, so for them anyone who transcends their concept of sanity by acting and/or thinking differently is labelled insane, a lunatic, someone who isnt normal by their standards.

In reality, anyone and anything that comes from outside our norms and isn’t understood is usually deemed insane by the general population, even feared at start and considered heresy or blasphemy. Just like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and just like the case with prophets and seers, the fear of novelty always stems from not understanding... people and/or things. Because, again, it’s the average majority that sets the standards of what is considered normal’, and what is not normal, or insane. Consider the Rock & Roll is the music of the devil craze in 1950s America as an example. Before that, it was the Wright Brothers, Columbus and Galileo among others who were looked upon as insane, for thinking outside the box. Less understanding always means more fear.

Plato had distinguished between three types of madness; rational madness, God-given madness (Theia mania), and disordered desiderative states or mental illness. Both, in the Symposium and Phaedrus, he explains that love cannot be pursued through soberness. Love is madness and philosophers are in love with wisdom; therefore, rational madness is an essential part of the good life. A little bit after, Aristotle concluded that all geniuses, without exception, are of a melancholy temperament. 

Emphasising on Platos notion, much later C.S Lewis once said that the love of knowledge is a kind of madness.

Interestingly, many of those mammoth souls were wise and humble enough to also think of themselves as fools who aren
t certain about anything but their own ignorance. For only the fool thinks he knows; only he sees the world in absolutes; and only he ceases to learn.

reasons for admission to insane asylums in the late 1800s

In the above list, some of the reasons for admission to insane asylums in the late 1800s where Novel reading, Politics, Religions, Tobacco and Masturbation, and Laziness. Yep. And that wasnt aeons ago. Homosexuality was, in fact, considered a personality disorder that required medical help until 1973. This may seem funny now but can you really grasp how life and reality were different a mere 100 years ago? Today, some psychiatrists got the audacity to suggest that non-conformity is a mental illness.

That said, the concept of sanity and mental health in societies and according to the law keeps changing over time, and likely, that will always be so. Who knows, maybe in the next 50 years or so some of those different folks will be celebrated instead of being diagnosed and labelled then medicated and dulled.

It is of importance to note, however, that not all sorts of mental illness are not real or are not dangerous. Some of them do require medical help like those suffering from depression or bipolar disorder, because they can turn to addiction and suicide if not treated. In fact, Vincent van Gogh was among those geniuses who were mentally ill; he suffered from severe depression, mutilated one of his ears in 1888, entered an asylum, then shot himself in 1890 at the age of 37 whilst painting at the height of his creative powers. That, is an example of serious illness.

Who’s Mad?

Science has long theorised that there was a link associating creativity and intelligence with mental illness. During the nineteenth century clinical diagnosis confirmed the previous assumption of an alliance between genius and madness. However, today the evidence isnt empirical yet and psychologists are still unable to agree on why there should be any connection between the two, or if madness enhances genius or diminishes it. Though we know that some of the greatest, most creative people in history were the most eccentric and quirky who have shown apparent signs of mental oddity. Some were depressed, others showed signs of bipolar disorder or had OCD, and others were never diagnosed, perhaps because they never really showed symptoms of insanity, leaving us with only speculations. But all mad geniuses seem to have had some extra brain power that distinguished them from others.

Historians believe that Tolstoy, Darwin, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Dickens and Newton to name a few could easily fall into that category. More renowned creative minds like writers Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, and Ernest Hemingway are also believed to have suffered from sorts of mental illnesses. Yep, they were a little mad, but they were also great. So.

This Link has more details on the eccentricity of many more geniuses like Tesla, Nostradamus, Nietzsche, Galileo, Da Vinci, Pythagoras, Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Byron as well as Huxley, Twain, Freud, and Jung.

Another gifted soul is John Nash (photo below) whose story was popularised by the award-winning film A Beautiful Mind. He was a brilliant mathematician who had contributed a whole lot to science even though he was struggling with paranoid schizophrenia and used to experience frequent hallucinations and delusions.

After 30 years of in-and-out of hospitals, Nash was finally able to make a significant recovery from his illness by the late 80s. In 1994, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his early work with Game Theory.

John Nash is the owner of a “Beautiful Mind”
John Nash is the owner of a Beautiful Mind

What is interesting is that when asked about his recovery, he suggested that irrational thought actually has its benefits, emphasising that it wasn
t entirely a matter of joy to him.

One aspect of this is that rationality of thought imposes a limit on a persons concept of his relation to the cosmos.

Kim Peek is another brainiac savant, or megasavent as he is known, who was the inspiration for the character of Raymond Babbitt, played by Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man. Cute-man Peeks label was FG syndrome — a rare genetic syndrome linked to the X chromosome which causes physical anomalies and developmental delays.

You can watch his story in this documentary here: The Real Rain Man - Documentary.

Kim Peek: The actual Rain Man
Kim Peek: The actual Rain Man

We’re All Mad

This is where I personally think THE line is drawn. This is when you get to be kept outside of the loony bin. By doing your own thing; by being fully into something, anything; by embracing your madness — which is your own individuality and uniqueness — and not denying or fighting it; by channelling this difference into something productive and functional, such as creating something that wasn't there before. You see, its relatively easy to lose ones head in this life, and thats not always a bad thing. But I believe the point is how to use that loss as an advantage into gaining something else.

When we really think about it, all these geniuses we mentioned were not crazy in any negative sense like the one portrayed in the dictionaries. Their madness may only be slightly different than the institutionalised mental illness. Though the dramatic stories told about individual geniuses tend to distort the overall relationship of mental illness and creativity. But many of them could still distinguish fantasy from reality and were able to rationally conduct their affairs without the impulsive behaviour of an actual case of psychosis. 

The thing is that throughout the ages, the words
crazy’, insane’, and mad have had different connotations and were used in various contexts. They have come to include the mentally diseased, the genius, the wild and passionately enthusiastic, as well as... anyone different who isnt understood and who is considered not normal compared to the average standard of normality.  

Even though being mentally different entails lots of ups and downs, but those mad geniuses just have a different reality because possibly their minds are wired differently. Their thinking pattern is at a different level and their brain connections may not match the averages. Oftentimes, the irregularity is diagnosed as an illness. Subsequently, they are labelled insane by the majority who get to form all concepts, sanity included.

However, one mans normal is nothing but another mans crazy and vice versa; to each his own, for reality is relative and not absolute. As always, “those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music. A reason why it is said that there is a mighty fine line between the realities of both genius and crazy. And sometimes, differentiating between where does one end and the other start leaves us with nothing but a quagmire of uncertainty.

Again, the diagnosis will always keep differing with the ages. But most probably, I think genius will always border on insanity. Scientifically speaking, though, to establish a definitive connection or even distinction between psychological illness and creative thinking remains a slippery and ambitious task, for now.

Einstein blotter
Mad Matter: “ Have I gone mad?”
Alice: “ I
m afraid so. Youre entirely bonkers. But Ill tell you a secret.
All the best people are.”

Other than my interest in the nature of human behaviour and personalities, the chief reason why the concept of insanity fascinates me personally is that since my early-mid teens I had been relentlessly called crazy and weird by friends and acquaintances, and now by online friends and some readers. Back in the days, I never really new what it meant though I was inclined to believe them. You must have taken too many psychedelics, my young brain was trying to convince itself with any reason as to why many tell me that so often. But the reality is, by that time this psychonaut hadn’t had enough time to experiment with many substances, for I was literally still finalising my teenage years.

Later, I realised that I was, and still am, called crazy mainly because I was not understood; not because I was a brainiac genius but because others — or the majority — probably couldn’t relate to some of the things I say or do. That’s all. I could often see that lost yet bemused gaze in their eyes along with a subtle smile; and I still do. But I’m someone who was never diagnosed with a mental dysfunction. Because if I was really batshit ‘institution’ crazy, how come I’m still here in full liberty coherently [or so I hope] writing a piece about insanity? Or, maybe I’ll get there later in life, like on bi-Polar Bear Day in February 2019. 

Besides, the batshit institution crazy folks dont know theyre crazy. I know Im crazy, therefore I'm not crazy. Crazy, huh.

Now seriously, I do hold that everyone has a creative crazy genius child inside of them who just need to be fed right. Unfortunately, in the case of many, the child is dulled by the standardised left-brain dominant education we find in schools today. They lose their shine and colours and wings to conform to a grim, grey reality. Children are slowly but surely conditioned to accept that being part of the herd is the normal, not-crazy thing to do. In some rare cases, however, the genius is kept into adulthood. And the price to pay is to be called weird or crazy. Thats why I found it of importance to elaborate on what insanity is and isnt to others as well as to myself.

Looking back at those example from history made me see the other side of the equation. It actually made me appreciate being different. And if that comes with being labelled crazy’, then so be it. I truly have no problem with that. This is who I really am at the core, without acting or pretending or caring about what others think of me. I actually see it as a blissful blessing not to be like everyone else. I now enjoy the craziness and embrace it even more; I recognise and welcome it in a friendly manner à la Carl Jung. I even use it to my favour, and I think everyone can, even should, do the same. Because lets face it, were ALL crazy somehow... because were all different. Some, you see, just constantly exert an effort to hide that difference. However, one should not be afraid to show their true individualistic them. The real deal; the nefelibata. For being true to oneself is a fundamental aspect to our own well-being.

In a purple fluorescent NUTshell, the connection between genius and insanity still remains a fascinating and peculiar topic 2500 years after it was first discussed in ancient Greek. Apart from the clinical definition, being called insane merely means being different than the rest. Sometimes its genetic, causing some oddity in the brain like the case of John Nash and Kim Peek, which allows them to excel in some field while facing difficulties in others. Other times, its just a label the average give to those they do not understand — perhaps some minor physical oddities exist here as well, yet are less noticeable, or not.

A genius is best defined by how they use their difference to create. Geniuses are sure different, and as we have seen, most were psychopathically abnormal to a certain degree. So if you are different for whatever reason, and feel it inside of you, act upon it while using that difference as an advantage. Your originality and creativity are gifts you are born with; for no one can come up with an idea quite like you.

There is also a collective benefit for doing so: T
he live example you give to others so that them, too, can be themselves. Who knows what you, or them, could achieve by being yourselves. Perhaps youll be remembered in history as one of those geniuses and I get to add your photo on here. Or, you may end up in the funny farm but Ill still write about you. Its all but a choice what you do with your madness. Personally, I see it as a win-win situation.

No matter how weird or quirky you think you are, always be you. For the only way out is in. But how would I know, Im just crazy.

Theres a fine line between genius and insanity; Im doing the reverse flying trapeze on that line... and Im cross-eyed.

Omar Cherif in L.A, August 2014
Non Compos Mentis Nefelibata


Who Are We?

My Journey Towards Self-Transcendence

Theory of Mind: Thinking About Thinking and the Benefits of Observing the Observer
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...