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Religion & Culture | Genius and madness: Is there a connection?

Published:Sunday | June 18, 2017 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
Ernest Hemingway
Sigmund Freud
Steve Jobs

The famous poem, Howl, by Allen Ginsberg, opens with the provocative line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness; starving hysterical naked ..."

The list is long and exhaustive. It is a list of brilliant minds - writers, poets, scientists, all of whom have been ravaged by mental illness.

Unmistakably, there is a correlation between genius and psychopathological disorders. According to recent studies by scientists in Iceland (2015), genetic factors that raise the risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are found more often in people in creative professions.

They also found that painters, musicians, writers and dancers were, on average, 25 per cent more likely to carry the gene variants than professions the scientists judged to be less creative.

This is not a new narrative. Shakespeare is said to have suggested the connection but according to the article, 'New study claims to find genetic link between creativity and mental illness,' featured in The Guardian, (June 8, 2015), the poetic genius, Lord Byron, who was called half mad by nature, was the most explicit when he said: "We of the craft (writers) are all crazy."

But how do we define creativity? A workable, general definition is the possession of an inventive mind, a mind capable of conjuring new ideas and concepts that are transformational and progressive. Scientists attribute creativity and genius to a genetic component and even to environmental factors.

However, there is another factor worth considering. It is metaphysical in nature and has long been favoured by the ancients and even modern day metaphysicians.

The Greeks believed that we are all accompanied by a daemon (not to be confused with the Christian concept of a nefarious angelic being). The daemon is an inner voice, a muse that counsels and awakens us to a higher sense of awareness.

Socrates felt that his daemon was a gift from the gods, a gift that made him unique. Compare this with Carl Jung's Philemon, an invisible figure with whom he communed daily.

According to Jung, Philemon was not an extension of his mind but a separate entity that offered him crucial insight and discernment, helping him to create the intriguing theory of the collective unconscious.

If the Greeks and Jung are right we can unreservedly pronounce that many of our greatest minds have opened themselves knowingly or unknowingly to their own personal muse.

But many of these great minds, the geniuses have met tragic ends. Of the truly great ones, scores have committed suicide.


Here is a markedly shortlist:


- Sigmund Freud


- Vincent Van Gogh (painter);

- Ernest Hemmingway (writer);

- George Eastman (inventor);

- Alan Turing (mathematician);

- Yukio Mishima (three-time Nobel Prize nominee for literature);

- Ludwig Boltzmann (physicist);

- Hans Berger (the first person to record electroencephalograms or EEGs).

- And Michelangelo, the most revered artist of all time, while not deliberately ending his life, was known as a man sorely lacking in hygiene and bereft of all social graces.

We should note, though, that many psychologists decry the genius-madness connection, such as Albert Rosenberg, who said, "Psychiatric diagnoses of eminent people have been derived not from clinical sources but from general and popular biographies revealing apparent clay feet of creative heroes, unproven gossip and hearsay."

Still, the plethora of evidence (genius-madness connection) cannot be easily dismissed.

Admittedly, this is a complex subject where definitive answers are elusive. But before attempting to surmise it must be acknowledged that not all geniuses are mentally ill and many continued to live productive lives until their passing.

Indeed, there is no evidence that the likes of Albert Einstein, Carl Wickland, Carl Jung, Rene Descartes, Edgar Cayce, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Spielberg, Hans Zimmer, Voltaire, and others of the modern era, like Steve Job, were tortured.

What then is behind the tragic end of so many other geniuses? Outside of the physiological, genetic explanation that is only cursory in scope; and the isolationist theory that states that tragic geniuses were loners without any support system, I can only offer this possibility: Did the genius whose life spiralled out of control abuse the incredulous gifts afforded to him?

Was he dismissive of the Divine and his own frailty, thinking he is lord unto himself? Was he pestered by his own self-righteousness? Was he boastful and intolerant, lacking in all virtue? Was his life rebalanced by nature? And did nature, as it always does, finally correct his indiscretions?

- Dr Glenville Ashby is the author of Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity.Feedback:

glenvilleashby@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby