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Are us loonies smarter than you?



“Mental disorders are among the most complex problems in medicine, with challenges at every level from neurons to neighbourhoods. Yet, we know so little about mechanisms at each level. Too often, we have been guided more by religion than science. That is, so much of mental health care is based on faith and intuition, not science and evidence.” – NIMH Director Thomas Insel

“As an experience, madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets as sanity does.” – Virginia Woolf

Dr Oliver Joe Robinson is upset about studies purporting to link mental illness with high IQ and creativity.

He concedes the belief has been widespread since Aristotle and enjoys some support from contemporary research. He even approvingly quotes bipolar psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, who describes following ideas “as fast and frequent as shooting stars” that lead her onward to ever better ones.

But as he also points out, mental illness generally messes up your life, quoting Jamison again of her experience of hypomania phasing into mania, making her “irritable, angry, frightened, uncontrollable”.

IQ tests don’t measure creativity or better life outcomes anyway.

Oddly, he then cites the claim that if bipolar disorder were to be eliminated, total social creativity would fall by only 0.23%. As if it were possible to reduce creativity to a simple metric or quantify what its loss might mean to someone who had it.

Robinson admits psychiatry knows next to nothing about the causes of mental illness and that the symptom clusters defining so-called ‘diseases’ are probably responses to “myriad underlying mechanisms, all of which may require fundamentally different treatments”. But he is having none of the suggestion these responses may be so common because they serve an evolutionary function. That in at least some circumstances they may offer an adaptive advantage and that’s why they haven’t been bred out of the human race despite their physical and social costs to the sufferers.

Least surprising is his concluding lament that around twenty times as much is spent on cancer patients as on mental health patients. He seems to forget doctors can actually diagnose cancer and offer treatments with a reasonable chance of improving or extending the life of the sufferer. Oncologists bury their mistakes. Psychiatrists are often resented by theirs.

Yes, people who are distressed and seeking help should be able to get it – though I’d question whether psychiatrists are the most qualified to give it. I’ve known a few people who believed the ‘help’ mental health professionals gave them – sometimes against their will – only made things worse. Perhaps unsurprising when you remember the tools psychiatrists use can’t reliably inform them of the causes or likely cures of a mental disorder.

The research Dr Robinson does approve of is the kind that concludes “the sooner we can intervene … the better the outcome”, but he doesn’t ask “better for who?”. Nor does he question the wisdom of increasing the reach of a profession that doesn’t know what it’s doing.

I don’t think psychiatry is terribly comfortable with creativity. It has a tendency to pathologise non-conformity and it’s difficult to be creative while doing what everyone else does. Maybe creativity is the one ‘disease’ psychiatrists know how to cure.

I don’t really know what’s creative unless it’s what you do. Just being seems pretty creative to me. I’m not sure how you’d measure it.

From → DSM

  1. Total social creativity. Good god, never mind us loonies, the whole world is mad.


    • It must have been a huge breakthrough the day they discovered the fundamental unit of creativity.

      Soon it will be mandatory for all artistic and cultural products to disclose the amount of creativity used in their manufacture. It’s not just to prevent consumers being ripped off, but to help ensure we get our minimum daily requirement.

      Liked by 2 people

      • It’s for our own good. Just 0.00001mg per diem ensures a whiter smile – do not exceed the recommended dose. Side effects may include drowsiness and complete implosion of the cranium. T&C’s apply.


  2. For Fox Sake permalink

    Are people who say they are not creative, scared of being tarred with the
    loony brush? Methinks creativity is measured by how much of tar sticks, baby.


    • Not me.

      I’m not creative because everything I say and do is a copy. Everything from the op system of the computer I use to the language I try to communicate in right down to my DNA.
      Isn’t my brain just a deterministic chemical reaction and my mind emergent from it?

      That’s why there’s no such thing as intellectual property. It’s all stolen goods,


  3. For Fox Sake permalink

    Isn’t my brain just a deterministic chemical reaction and my mind emergent from it?

    Ooohhh, you’re just a garden-variety party-pooper, ya know that?

    Pull my zucchini.


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