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A fine line between an eccentric genius and a smart madman

It's a scene we've seen so many times in cartoons, movies and comic books that it has become a stereotype: the lunatic artist about to finish his masterpiece, the mad professor about to reveal his greatest creation, the psychotic inventor about to change the course of history … Notice how often "madness" seems to go with creativity, discovery and greatness.

Mental illness has always associated with genius, especially in the arts: poetry, music, literature, painting, theatre and the rest. But why?

Many scientific studies have found links between genius and mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder in which patients have violent mood swings between elation and depression. In one interesting Swedish study, 700,000 Swedes had intelligence tests at age 16 and again 10 years later. Those who scored well were four times more likely than the others to have developed bipolar disorder.

The US neurologist James Fallon came up with a convincing argument based on his own findings in the field: the brain area involved in mood swings is the same area where creativity is born. This may explain why some people can draw previously unseen connections among ideas, images, shapes and the like.

These "novelties" that have never before crossed the human mind can be either bizarre or beautiful, pleasant or challenging to our senses - but doesn't that sound like art?

I have been amazed to find that there is plenty of evidence to support this theory. Schizophrenia, a disorder in which hallucinations, delusions and a distorted perception of reality crowd the mind, can also facilitate new works of art and thought. Delusions and hallucinations can be doorways to a new world (or "personal reality") that the person can share with others through art: music, poetry, painting or something else.

Some may argue that medical patients who can produce magnificent works of art or new concepts should be left in that "creative state" for the benefit of mankind. There is no doubt that medications can hinder the creative process as the patient returns to the "normal" world.

The best way to think about that question, in my opinion, is to see it from the point of view of the patient's family and friends. Are the fruits of genius really worth the hardship for families? Tensions among friends? Making people around the patient feel alienated from society because they must live with a mentally ill individual whose foibles may cost them the simple pleasure of living normally?

What if, all day every day, you had to live in anxiety, even fear, for the individual's life or even your own? Anyone who has ever had to care for a mentally ill person will tell you that it demands enormous amounts of energy and time, and can be done only with a mountain of patience and equanimity.

Most people don't face such situations, but for those who do it can be devastating. It is selfish for anyone to say that others should accept and live in such a calamity for the sake of art.

Of course not everyone who excels in creativity is suffering a great mental problem, or even a small one. Far from it. Many people who are considered to be geniuses, or otherwise equipped with great intelligence, do not suffer from any kind of mental illness and live their lives without ever needing any special care or medication. These people can excel in many ways: just look at someone who scores well on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, or who becomes an inspiring teacher.

And of course there are also many asylums filled with unfortunate souls afflicted with madness but showing no sign of genius.

So we cannot say that mental disorders give birth to genius; the observation of a frequent correlation between the two conditions is just one little part of our still-developing understanding of how the human mind works.

Perhaps if we could understand the link better, and do further research on the matter, it would help find a cure for many people - those with the spark of genius, and those of more ordinary intellect - who suffer from mental illness.

For those of us who are fortunate enough to be free of any serious mental ailment, we can still dream of being the Michelangelo of our time. Perhaps a game of chess, session of sudoku, or quality time reading Crime and Punishment would be a good start.

Fatma Al Ardhi is an art gallery owner based in Muscat

Updated: September 12, 2012 04:00 AM

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