The thin line between insanity and creative genius

'What for one culture is a marker of madness is for another an unremarkable aspect of the mind's life'

Share

Like most announcements and unveilings in the field of genetics, the news that a schizophrenia gene has been identified by scientists needs to be treated with some caution. Imagine a headline reading "Caster sugar identified as causing meringues", and you will have a passable model for how much is often left out in the attempt to compress scientific complexity into a newspaper headline.

Like most announcements and unveilings in the field of genetics, the news that a schizophrenia gene has been identified by scientists needs to be treated with some caution. Imagine a headline reading "Caster sugar identified as causing meringues", and you will have a passable model for how much is often left out in the attempt to compress scientific complexity into a newspaper headline.

Nevertheless, the identification by German researchers of a gene implicated in inherited schizophrenia is clearly another step towards a fuller understanding of a disease - another step towards the notional goal of cure or prevention.

A clear enough step, anyway, to alarm those for whom the notion of genetic control over human biology has a dark shadow and for whom the notion of "cure" is a decidedly ambiguous one. On Radio 4's Today programme yesterday, Gwynneth Hemmings, of the Schizophrenia Association, warned against simplistic notions that we could eradicate schizophrenia by antenatal screening, for instance. And later this month the biochemist David Horrobin, the association's president, will publish The Madness of Adam and Eve: how schizophrenia shaped humanity, a work that argues that the disease is intimately, even inseparably, linked to the development of human culture.

The same mutation that triggered the ascent of man, Horrobin suggests, is responsible for the descent of individual men and women into madness. The emergence of this particular twist of our DNA signalled the divergence "between our large-brained, possibly pleasant, but unimaginative ancestors and the restless, creative creatures that we are today".

At one level this is a programme of rehabilitation for an illness that has been crudely demonised in the past. It comes complete with the kind of celebrity recruitment programme familiar from other consciousness-raising exercises, from Parkinson's disease to homosexuality.

Schumann, Strindberg, Kafka and Wittgenstein all betrayed schizotypal tendencies, we are told, and offer evidence of the close kinship between mental instability and creativity. There is a persuasive logic at work here. The classic symptoms of some forms of schizophrenia - delusions, hallucinations and wild associations of thought - have their respectable counterparts in notions of artistic and creative ability. The thoughts of a schizophrenic may well be "loosely connected", as one description has it, but it is just such loose connections that allow new and important connections to be formed - whether they are poetic or scientific.

This is scarcely an unprecedented flash of genius in itself. Dryden expressed it first and most concisely in Absalom and Achitophel, concluding his allegorical portrait of the Earl of Shaftesbury with the celebrated couplet: "Great wits are sure to madness near allied/ And thin partitions do their bounds divide." Since then it has become almost a commonplace, cemented into position by Freud's further associations between creativity and neurosis.

But our attitude to schizophrenia and its symptoms might move further yet; in his recent book Malignant Sadness, Lewis Wolpert noted that "in West Africa even mild depression may be associated with the sort of hallucinations that are, in the West, usually associated with schizophrenia." In other words, what for one culture is a marker of clinical madness is, for another, a pretty unremarkable aspect of the life of the mind.

But why is it that natural selection has fixed schizophrenia in the genome? The argument that it is the flip-side of our distinctive ingenuity and invention is one solution. Another, proposed by the evolutionary psychiatrists Anthony Stevens and John Price, is that schizophrenic types were invaluable in early human society, when rapid growth of social groups necessitated regular splitting into smaller tribes.

The schizoid type, they suggest, is "enabled by his borderline psychotic thinking to separate himself from the dogma and ideals of the main group, and to persuade his followers that he is uniquely qualified to lead them to salvation in a promised land".

Dryden's identification of the kinship between genius and insanity was a prejudicial one, entirely satirical in its intentions. We have learnt since then to be far more open-minded about the differences between what we admire in the human mind and what we fear.

But the poet's image of "thin partitions" is still a useful one, particularly in the field of evolutionary biology, where the divisions between success and failure may be infinitesimally small. Even the most optimistic proponent of genetic medicine would probably admit that, for the moment anyway, the instruments we possess are still too blunt to use on such delicate structures. Should we try to cut out the disease with such crude tools, we may well find that we have cut out what first made us human, too.

sutcliff@globalnet.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker
 

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game