Intelligence and insanity: Kerouac had it right

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What is normal? Is it better to be intelligent than not? How does high intelligence affect mental health and/or perceptions of mental health? Are we more comfortable, as a society, when average and/or mediocre are what we deem to be the “norm”? Why do we look to hire those with whom we have a defined comfort level that embodies “the other” as a perceived non-threat to our position (i.e., “they are like us”)? Does any of this really matter? After all, we’ve debated and rationalized these things for ages.

As usual, I default to the question of “What does the research say?” [There’s a whole ‘nother lecture about being a good consumer of research – one of my favorites actually – but that’s another blog for another day.] I’ll go light on the citations because I can happily get carried away.

The point is this: the concept of normal has been manipulated, massaged, and hacked apart in the literature coming from the medical, behavioral and social sciences. In my discipline, there is also a spate of emergent literature discussing the effects of technology on human behavior, including analogous observations regarding what we technologists (cross-disciplinarians by definition and practice) have known for ages. Yes, there are effects which seem to suggest that human behaviors in connection with rapid diffusion of technology fall outside of what the scholarly community has considered the norm (past tense). My non-scholarly response is “duh”.

The reason I refer to the norm in past tense is that societal and technological change is occurring constantly and rapidly. Somewhat metaphysically, very little that we presume to be what we think it should be, actually exists in that static state that is [was] “the norm”.

Humans don’t like change. Change is threatening. People who promulgate change or challenge us shake up our respective conceptualizations of reality (which is an illusion in the first place). When someone’s reality concept gets shaken up, they may become insecure and defensive, and anyone who is responsible for unsettling their world can be perceived as a threat. Therefore, different – or outside of the norm – is not OK.

Kramer (2009) observed that

“The fate of normality is very much in the balance. The American Psychiatric Association is now revising its diagnostic and statistical manual—the next version, DSM-V, should preview in 2011 and become official the following year. It may, indeed, be that as labels proliferate, mental disorders will annex ever more territory. But claims of a psychiatric power grab are overstated. The real force behind a proliferation of labels is the increasing ability of technology to see us as we’ve never been seen before. Still, the notion of a shift in the normal invites unease: To constrain normality is to induce conformity. To expand diagnosis is to induce anxiety. Is anyone really well?” (para. 7).

Particularly in the scholarly community, I observe the conflict as sort of a push toward conformity, or perhaps submission. As a relative latecomer to the game since my life as a PhD is my second career, I generally shake my head. I marvel at the ability of insecure humans to consciously/unconsciously thwart progress in the form of attacking others’ credibility and/or work because, well, the divergence can cause some individuals to become nervous.

It’s not normal. Why, certainly that person must be insane or mentally disturbed at the very least!”

What’s really being conveyed is “Because I don’t comprehend what that person is saying, they must be crazy.”

Insanity is thrown about quite liberally and is really nothing to joke about. When I think of someone who is insane (and remember I’m not that kind of doctor /grin), I usually think of someone who is institutionalized and heavily medicated with no hope of recovery. That’s scary stuff man. Having had my own relatively small battles with mental health, I have great respect for the power of the human mind and its inherent fragilities. Nonetheless, one has only to look at society’s version of the mad scientist to draw a [potentially unfounded] causal relationship between high intelligence and mental/intellectual idiosyncrasies. Of course there’s a lot more to the picture, but we’ll keep it simple for now.

From where did the question of the relationship between intelligence and insanity emanate? One research (University of Toronto, 2003) fortified a fantastic debate surrounding a possible connection. Co-researcher and University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson explained that the study’s findings seem to suggest that

“creative individuals remain in contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment” and 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” (para. 2).

Similarly, in a 2007 study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH),

“three fourths of subjects studied had at least one copy of the [gene] version that results in more efficient filtering of information processed by the brain’s executive hub, the prefrontal cortex. However, the same version [of the gene] was also more prevalent among people who developed schizophrenia, a severe mental illness marked by delusions, hallucinations and impaired emotion that affects one percent of the population” (para. 3).

Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, M.D., one of the primary researchers in the 2007 NIH study, explained that the researchers “found that DARPP-32 shapes and controls a circuit coursing between the human striatum and prefrontal cortex that affects key brain functions implicated in schizophrenia, such as motivation, working memory and reward related learning” (para. 3).

Daniel Weinberger, M.D., co-investigator (NIH, 2007), stated that the results of the study “raise the question of whether a gene variant favored by evolution, that would normally confer advantage, may translate into a disadvantage if the prefrontal cortex is impaired, as in schizophrenia” (para. 5). Weinberger added that

Normally, enhanced cortex connectivity with the striatum would provide increased flexibility, working memory capacity and executive control. But if other genes and environmental events conspire to render the cortex incapable of handling such information, it could backfire — resulting in the neural equivalent of a superhighway to a dead-end” (para. 6).

It is impossible to encapsulate such complex research in a blog post. Further, the science may or may not support the daily assumptions we make about people who think differently than we do. Even without scientific studies to provide a basis (or lack thereof) for our conclusion that “so and so must be crazy!“, we are still likely to perceive others who are different (and perhaps threatening) as being somewhat insane, especially if they are highly intelligent and not particularly socially adept.

There is no basis to correlate high intelligence with insanity as absolutely generalizable. Using strong language such as “proves” in connection with researches is always a dangerous move because validity and reliability must always be scrutinized.

Otherwise…

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[Expert opinions count, but again…that’s a blog for another day…]

My personal theory is that being highly intelligent is a lot of work and stress for humans who are not only penalized for being different, but who are also labeled and minimized because they think differently. The literature seems to provide support for my assertion that these individuals perceive things that others simply filter out. “If I didn’t see it, it doesn’t exist!

I contend that my ADHD is quite a gift although I find it challenge to manage in its “raw” [unmedicated] form at the moment due to high anxiety and personal stress. Absent those conditions in acute forms, my insatiable ADHD mind is the reason I am good at what I do as a musician, scholar, educator, consultant… I learn at a fantastic rate and can pull up mental snapshots of most anything I read. I dream in citations and I love my intellectual life! Conversely, I understand the potential negative effects in terms of reduced drive for social interaction and/or feeling like I’m not likely to fit in unless I talk about “Jersey Shore” or some other thing I’m clueless about. (I’m not saying Jersey Shore is bad, I’m saying I don’t know a damn thing about it and don’t care.)

I’ve given up feeling the need to fit in pretty much anywhere. I’m good with that. Am I insane? To a large degree, who cares about who cares!

Kerouac had it right.

References

Kramer, P. (2009, November 1). What is normal? Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200910/what-is-normal

Meyer-Lindenberg, A., Straub, R., Lipska, B., Verchinski, B., Goldberg, T., Callicott, J…Weinberger, D. (2007). Genetic evidence implicating DARPP-32 in human fronto-striatal structure, function and cognition. The Journal of Clinical Investigation, 117(3), 672-682. doi:10.1172/JCI30413

University Of Toronto (2003, October 1). Biological Basis For Creativity Linked To Mental Illness. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 4, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­/releases/2003/10/031001061055.htm

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