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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Genius and Insanity

Mad Hatter

One even somewhat familiar with the biographies of many of mankind’s greatest geniuses will be struck by the observation that an alarming fraction of them seem to have exhibited symptoms of mental illness, frequently quite severe. One need but think of Cantor, Frege, Nash, Landau, or Gödel.Newton’s name too probably belongs on this list.

The reasons for this are fascinating to contemplate. One, surely incomplete, reason that occurs is that geniuses do not come to strange, dangerous, and false conclusions about themselves or their environment more often than ordinary people do. Rather, it is that geniuses, because they are geniuses, lack a safety rail heuristic that ordinary people enjoy.

When the thoughts and observations of an ordinary person lead him or her to an extraordinary conclusion, they will often share it with their peers (or at least imagine themselves doing so). If all of the person’s peers strongly reject that conclusion (or the person feels that they would), the person discards this conclusion as erroneous. And quite rightly, for if an ordinary person uniquely comes to such a conclusion, they are indeed very likely wrong.

However, geniuses do not have this useful heuristic to rely upon. For a genius will have had the frequent experience of reaching some strange conclusion, seeing it rejected by others, and yet ultimately proven right.They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round//They all laughed when Edison recorded sound//They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother when they said that man could fly//Why, they told Marconi wireless was a phoney — it’s the same old cry//Why they laughed at me, wanting you — said I was reaching for the moon//But oh, you came through — and now they’ll have to change their tune. But then, they also all laughed at Bozo the Clown. So the genius cannot—and should not—reject a conclusion merely because it is widely rejected.

Sadly, geniuses—like all people—sometimes reach quite incorrect conclusions which nobody can talk them out of. In some cases, such as Gödel’s paranoid delusion that somebody was trying to poison him, this can be fatal.