If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous. – Blaise Pascal
Despite being the greatest and most influential mind in human history, Isaac Newton, by all accounts, was a bit of a headcase. Newton was famously petty and vindictive. He would go through manic episodes where he would work furiously for days at a time without eating or sleeping. Afterward, he would fall into deep depressions, refuse to see or speak to anyone, and often contemplated suicide. During these darkest episodes, Newton would often have hallucinations and speak to imaginary people.
Newton wasn’t the only troubled scientific genius, of course. Nikola Tesla churned out over 200 inventions in his lifetime, including the first prototype of an electric motor, the first remote control, and helped to invent X-ray photography. He invented a more efficient form of electricity than Edison.
What’s lesser known is that Tesla had an intense phobia of dirt and germs and a curious obsession with doing everything in multiples of three. He would compulsively calculate everything in his immediate environment, like how many cubic centimeters of food he was about to eat or how many meters he was going to walk to the toilet. He spent years living in hotels without ever paying his bills. He, like Newton, also reported blinding visions and hallucinations in some of his most intense creative periods.
Why does it seem that a disproportionate amount of the artistic and scientific geniuses in the world are a bit loony tunes? Many of the greatest literary figures of the past 300 years either drank themselves to death or shot themselves. The heroin-overdosed musician is almost a cliche at this point, it’s so common, you’re almost not even considered a real rock star unless you OD’d at some point.
The Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “There is no great genius without a tincture of madness.” We’ve all intuitively understood that people who are geniuses are often a little bit crazy. We accept it, even if we don’t know exactly why it’s so.
Yes, authors are actually more likely to be depressed than the general population. Similarly, scientists are more likely to be schizophrenic and visual artists are more likely to be bipolar.
But while mental illness may push some people to the extremes of creativity or discovery, for some people, it is a little troubling. Compared to “normal” people (as if “normal” even exists), people with mental illnesses have more chronic physical health problems, have difficulty forming and maintaining relationships, earn less money, and live shorter lives.
And for every quirky genius like Newton, who, in between re-inventing mathematics and formulating the fundamental laws of physics, probably had varied and interesting conversations with his imaginary folks around him.
Mental health is a tricky subject, The truth is that a lot of what we consider to be healthy and unhealthy, normal and abnormal, depends on the culture and time we live in.
In fact, among psychiatrists, notions of health and disease change from generation to generation. They argue all the time over the definitions of diseases like ADHD, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Centuries ago, when depression was known as “melancholia,” it was believed to be caused by an imbalance of bodily fluids called “humors.”
One of the reasons mental disorders are often difficult to define is that many of their characteristics are, in one sense, extreme versions of “normal” traits seen in all of us. For instance, we can all be a little obsessive from time to time and do funny stuff we wouldn’t normally do. You don’t have OCD, as many people joke, but you do have a particular fixation on some things being “in order” so that you feel comfortable and secure. I think most people have something like that in their lives, it’s just a question of to what degree.
But for the vast majority of us, it’s easy to figure out when our minds went on their own little picnic and we can quickly rejoin reality. People with certain types of schizophrenia, on the other hand, have trouble distinguishing the “real world” from their imagination. People with general anxiety disorders are so overcome by their anxiety that they cannot lead a functional life. People with extreme OCD similarly live in a constant state of not feeling in control of their own minds or actions.
Kurt Cobain was often described by close friends and family as a person who was absolutely terrified of being humiliated. He may have conveyed this apathetic rock star personality, keeping up appearances that he didn’t really care about fame notoriety, but actually, he was very concerned about what everyone thought to the point of having severe anxiety and depressive episodes.
But these same people will tell you that he was a machine during rehearsals and in the studio. Cobain was obsessed with honing his craft as an artist. Nirvana had rehearsal sessions that lasted upwards of 15 hours before recording Nevermind. This led him to become rock’s biggest pioneer since The Beatles. It also eventually led him to take his own life.
If we consider that the nature of being extreme translates into both big risks and big rewards, then perhaps “mental illness” is one of nature’s ways of making a risky bet and hoping it will pay off. Maybe the hypersensitive anxiety that gives panic attacks to the girl at your office is the same hypersensitive anxiety that will inspire her to write a brilliant novel or poem.
The inherent risk of living at the edges of the human endeavor is what drives new ideas and, ultimately, progress. We need people who are not only creative enough to see the world in new ways, but also delusional and crazy enough to believe their ideas are neither delusional nor crazy. As the famous Apple ad used to say, “Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
Credit goes to Mark Manson for his contribution to this post.