Friday, December 26, 2008

The Mystery of Creativity

The other day, I picked up Silvia Nasar's "A Beautiful Mind," and instantly I was hooked.

The book chronicles the life and times of John Nash, the mathematical genius who lost decades of his life to schizophrenia.

"How could you," a colleague asked back in 1959, "believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages?"

"Because," Nash replied, "the ideas that I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously."

In 2007, I had the occasion to hear Dr Nash speak at a convocation at the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting. He held a densely-worded typescript up to his face and proceeded to read in an interminably relentless monotone. I would have made a beeline for the door, but you don't even think about such things in the presence of a Nobel Laureate.

Okay, I lie. I thought about it.

Then something he said made my ears perk up. "My recovery began," he related, or words to that effect, "when my reputation finally started catching up with the acclaim I felt I deserved."

Speaking of schizophrenia and creativity: At a different session at the same APA meeting, Nancy Andreasen MD, PhD of the University of Iowa pointed out that Newton was a wild and crazy guy who had a psychotic break at age forty, that Albert Einstein was an eccentric who had a son with schizophrenia, and that James Watson was a bit of a loose cannon who also had a son with schizophrenia.

Thus, the three most important discoveries of the modern scientific era, Dr Andreasen said, had something to do with schizophrenia. What are the odds of that?

In the 1970s, Dr Andreasen pursued the schizophrenia connection in a survey of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She expected to find a percentage of well-adjusted individuals with schizophrenia in their families, only to find herself "absolutely astounded" to discover instead that 80 percent of them had some form of mood disorder.

Confessed Dr Andreasen: "This is a great example of starting out with the wrong hypothesis and coming up with a completely different answer."

In her talk, Dr Andreasen discussed a study she is working on, involving scanning the brains of artists and scientists, including Nobel Laureates, as they perform simple tasks. She is expecting to find greater than usual activity in the association cortices in the brain, where unconscious processes play out.

Dr Nash's great creative work was done in his early-mid twenties, before his illness manifested in full. But the author of "A Brilliant Mind" gives us the impression that John Nash was always a case of schizophrenia waiting to happen. From Day One, he was an outsider. Even in a profession notorious for its oddballs and cranks, John Nash never quite fit in.

We tend to identify mental illness by severe episodes and breaks with reality. But there tends to be long lead-in periods, with clear warning signs. Psychiatrists refer to these under-the-radar symptoms as "prodromal" states. Maybe something will happen, maybe not.

So here is a man with no ordinary brain. Thoughts connect in startlingly original ways. On one hand, it produced a stunning piece of rationality - games theory - that was so novel that his contemporaries failed to fully grasp its significance. On the other, this same remarkable brain was responsible for equally astonishing irrationality, a tragedy that robbed its owner of three decades of his life.

How could this be? We are still learning ...

Check out my article on creativity

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