Teacher Professor

May 31, 2010

I’m Not Crazy- I’m Just Out of Context

Filed under: Bipolar,Gifted — Teacher Professor @ 11:06 pm

I’m not crazy
I’m just a little unwell
I know right now you can’t tell
But stay awhile and maybe then you’ll see
A different side of me…

–Matchbox 20

A study from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden just found that people who were schizophrenic and people who were highly creative had very similar brain scans.  The portion of the brain responsible for filtering information, the thalamus, which also regulates dopamine, were similarly depressed.  This inability to regulate attention and “ideas” might account for the “out of the box” creative thinking, as well as the mania and hallucinations of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The difference appears to be in how a person responds to these ideas.  If they are able to regulate their emotional reactions, the ideas are “creative”.  If they respond negatively and are disturbed, or appear to be disturbed, then they are diagnosed with a mental illnesses. One man’s craziness is another person’s creativity.

Certainly, we know that mental illness and creativity overlap, and the more self-expressive the art or ideas, the more they overlap.  While there are creative mathematicians, they operate within a framework of accepted rules.  Despite the iconic image of the “mad scientist”, there are more depressed writers than chemists. The context of the creativity defines the acceptable degree of craziness.

In my conversations with my brother, who had bipolar disorder, I would be struck at his insights, until after a while I realized just how far afield he had gone and that he was becoming agitated and losing contact with “reality”.  There are many famous examples of creativity and craziness living side by side- Salvador Dali and VanGogh, to name a few.  But the difference is that my brother didn’t “produce” anything that was deemed valuable, while Dali and VanGogh had products that others wanted.

In other words, it may not be the actual thoughts that are the problem, it may be the reaction to them, whether from the person themselves or others, that determines whether there is a “problem”, or there is “creativity”.

Perhaps a relationship can be found to other research just out from the University of Southern California that has found that the “click” of comprehension or the clarifying of a creative thought fires the same centers in your brain that opium fires.  That means that learning and creating can be as pleasurable as drugs.  You can see it in a classroom of children when they are learning at their ideal rate; when they are being challenged.  Pupils get extended- both within the eye and the students themselves.

I’ve certainly felt it- that moment of “wow, things make SENSE now!” and I can put things together in new and unusual ways because I’ve just figured out how they go together.  I feel it when I teach and when I write and when I learn math.  It’s the moment in bipolar disorder when the mania starts and the understanding begins to flow.  It also may mean that the clarifying of the thought, the “eureka” moment, the “by George, I’ve got it” might be the difference between craziness and creativity.

And perhaps the critical element just might be in the audience and the context.  Creativity was recently cited by a study of global CEOs as a key element in their company’s value.  They needed to think in new and innovative ways, and to be able to communicate that vision to others.  Creativity unchecked, with no product to focus on, with no “learning” to share, with no one to communicate, might just be called mental illness.

Craziness just might be a job requirement for many positions these days…


  1. A fine line indeed

    Comment by Ralph — June 1, 2010 @ 11:54 am | Reply

  2. The very first paper I ever wrote in college was focused on this very topic – focused on the tortured genius of Poe.

    I couldn’t agree more that genius vs madness is very often just a matter of the perception of the audience.

    Comment by jess — June 2, 2010 @ 2:42 am | Reply

  3. […] What am I describing?  These characteristics can be found on list of descriptors for both giftedness and autism.  Taken from one perspective, they’re symptoms of a problem; from another, they’re characteristics of tremendous strengths.  So much of it depends on the context. […]

    Pingback by Twice-Exceptional and Overlapping Labels « Professor Mother Blog — August 26, 2010 @ 3:33 pm | Reply

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