There’s long been a link between greatness and madness in the mind of the public. Particularly after the early 1800′s and the rise of Romanticism in Europe, common wisdom held there to be a connection between genius, particularly creative genius, and mental illness.
If you’ve ever talked to someone suffering from severe schizophrenia, you might begin to doubt this connection. People with schizophrenia, unless they take anti-psychotic medication, have a difficult time getting enough of a grip on any kind of consistent reality. It’s hard to be creative if your perceptions are always shifting. The tools of creation fall apart even as you try to use them. It is hard for many schizophrenics to communicate without jumbling their words, let alone create.
Autism is another form of mental illness that has lately, quite fashionably, become associated with genius. However, the fact is that most autistic people have similar communication problems as schizophrenics (although for different reasons). If you show an autistic person 50 pictures of different cats, that person might not be able to see what all the pictures have in common. The autistic person will have trouble forming an abstract concept of “cat” on the evidence of seeing 50 particular cats. Thus, it’s hard for most autistic people to be creative, because it is hard for them to grasp language, which deals almost exclusively with abstractions.
Of course, there are a few autistic savants. These tend to use their super-powered memories to compensate for their difficult with abstract concepts–for example, by playing a piece of music after hearing it only once. However, these are few and far between.
The only mental disorder that has been consistently identified with genius, or at least with high levels of creativity and daring, is bipolar disorder, aka manic depression. Just fifteen years ago, Kay Redfield Jamison, a pioneering American psychologist, published a book called Touched With Fire, documenting the correlation between bipolar disorder and creativity.
As this book shows, a surprising amount of artists, writers, musicians, actors, and powerful political leaders have suffered from bipolar disorder. Beethoven, that archetypal artist of Romanticism? He was a bipolar manic depressive. So was Keats, another young Romantic. So was the Flemish actor Jean-Claude Van Damme (aka “The Muscles from Brussels”), who showed his creative genius in movies like Kickboxer and Street Fighter.
Could it be that Van Damme was so convincing in his role as the volatile American military man, William F. Guile, because he, himself, was a victim of regular, violent mood swings? There is strong evidence to suggest that this may have been the case.Learn how I beat Depression