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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Did Dryden Get It Right?

APA Seneca wrote, "There is no great genius without a tincture of madness," and William Wordsworth noted, "We poets in our youth begin in gladness, but thereof comes in the end despondency and madness." Shakespeare wrote, "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet, are of imagination all compact." Most notably, in 1681, John Dryden wrote a phrase that is often quoted today: "Great wits are sure to madness near ally'd, and thin partitions do their bounds divide."

Psychologist Grant Rich, reviewing Judith Schlesinger's The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius, ends his review by commenting, "I suspect the jury is still out on the mad genius controversy."

There are few issues in psychology more hotly debated. But why is the jury still out? Why has it been so very hard for psychologists to use science to resolve this seemingly simple question: Is there any relationship between creativity and certain forms of mental illness?

Read the Review
ReviewThe "Mad Genius" Controversy: The Debate Rages On
By Grant J. Rich
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2012 Vol 57(28)


Dr. Judith Schlesinger

I believe that Dr. Grant J. Rich, the reviewer of my book, "The Insanity Hoax," utterly missed the point. I fear he got hung up on tone at the expense of substance, as he repeatedly scolds me for being too passionate as well as for coloring outside the lines.

This approach was immediately telegraphed in the abstract, where he devoted considerable word count to warning readers about the (apparently horrifying) presence of my emphatic onomotopoeia (i.e.,the word THWACK), that was moreover written in CAPS (gasp!).

There is a lack of fair attention to the myriad aspects of the book (the many pages on the history of the myth, the contribution of the media and of the geniuses themselves, the inherent diagnostic dilemmas, etc., etc.) There is also a basic misunderstanding of what was included: e.g., Dr. Rich dismisses my chapters on creativity and madness as laundry lists of familiar definitions without getting their common point: that there are no consensual understandings or measurements of either term.

I expect that people who've already read "The Insanity Hoax" will have trouble recognizing it from this review. I nearly got confused myself.

Instead, Dr. Rich spends most of his time defending the authors I criticize, usually in a vague "can't we all just get along?" manner, rather than addressing the specific empirical problems that constitute so much of the book -- and inspired me to write it in the first place. He actually dispenses that "get along" cliche, along with the patronizing advice that "when smart people disagree, often each party has something to contribute."

In his determination to defend his colleagues at all costs -- and emblematic of the depth of his analysis -- Dr. Rich offers the blurbs on a book's dust jacket as proof of its merit. He also cites a 2004 debate I had in the British Journal of Psychiatry, but only to note my opponent's assessment that I was being "scathingly critical." Oh, bad girl.

Of course my tone is strident (This posting is hardly neutral itself.) But after 30 years of studying this question, I believe it is wholly justified. It is precisely this kind of reflexive "circling of the wagons" and misplaced trust in unread or crony-declared "empiricism" that enables the myth to endure, and society to keep pathologizing its geniuses.

Finally, it's unfortunate that readers of this review will get such a skewed notion of the book. The good news is that it reminds me, once again, how necessary it was to write it.

André G Growald

As a Clinical Psychologist in private practice in São Paulo, Brazil what I have to say is that it seems to me that creative people along History, being different from "usual" people, may annoy or disturb and therefore may occasionally receive a blemish of madness. Couldn't it be envy from those who can't be as creative as they'd wish to ? Why madness ? Just because of the difference ?

Dean Keith Simonton

I have not read the book yet, so I have no idea whether the author's treatment of the literature is comprehensive and accurate. What I do know is that the evidence for "thin partitions" does not rest on any single methodological approach. Besides historiometric and psychiatric inquiries, there are also extensive psychometric and behavioral genetic investigations leading to similar conclusions. Despite rather distinct assets and deficits, all triangulate (or "quadrangulate") on the same inference. Highly creative people are certainly not mad when they are highly creative, but they aren't exactly "normal" either. Instead, creators and the mentally ill share certain key cognitive and affective traits that are less likely to be found in the general population of "healthy people." At the same time, highly creative individuals will possess other characteristics that moderate and even exploit the potential mental and emotional disabilities (e.g., general intelligence and "ego strength"). Hence, any proclivities toward "mental illness" are channeled into healthy and productive directions. Besides possessing originality and imagination, supreme creators can select what is adaptive or appropriate to the situation.
I've had many direct exchanges with the author in the past, and, by that means, have learned that she is rather emphatic that she will stand by her extremist position come what may. That is really sad, because science doesn't work that way. If you look at the entirety of the empirical evidence and theoretical reasoning, the implications are very clear. We cannot speak of "myth" when there is far more than a "grain of truth." She has become the exact mirror image of Cesare Lombroso and others who have pathologized genius. What is left is right and top bottom, whereas the truth is right in the middle.

Joel L. Sereboff

For many years I practiced psychotherapy, and I read the debates among our colleagues about the "myth" of mental illness ( forget "insanity" which is not a hoax but a legal term). I needed to label people I saw because the insurance companies required it, and, though it was helpful to understand certain behavior patterns and traits derived from our science, it was a relief to meet each person as just that --- a person with struggles each desired to resolve. My comments are anecdotal and I must confess I have not read the book reviewed by Dr. Rich. Most people I saw in my practice engaged the therapy process and the therapist creatively ( the everyday variety), and I know my engagement with them was creative as well. Creativity is what my life is about; I am an oil painter and an inventor with many patents. Most people do not regard me as "mad", nor would I label as mad most of the artists or inventors I know as a therapist or as a colleague. Are we different from those who are not imaginative and original? You bet we are. But we do not need to pathologize that difference. I would rather we, as a society, make a concerted effort to understand what we can do to enrich our world by better greasing the path of those who might become eminent creators. My years of experience have inspired my interest in the creative process, and I am in the process of planning a study of that process in successful inventors. I am drawn to understanding the creative process which I believe is far more complex than can be explained with attribution to mental illness. From a vast array of issues related to creative process already broached in the literature, I expect to explore -- not the madness of creative persons-- but the process of engaging creativity that can be maddening. So, for me, it is time to move beyond the mental illness/creativity debate that has, IMO, been beaten to death, and to dig into what is going on when creative product emerges or is emerging. I honor those who have studied what makes creative people "creative" and what makes them different from folks in the larger population who are less creatively productive. Wouldn't it be nice if we could apply what we have learned to make the "illness" of creativity more contagious!?

Dr. Judith Schlesinger

In his latest attempt to kill the messenger, Simonton calls me "extremist" for daring to disagree and not back down, no matter what verbiage he throws in my direction (i.e., "come what may").

"Science doesn't work that way," he says; but at the dire risk of yet another ad hominem salvo, I dare to protest.

Science should not be quite so vulnerable to debate and alliances. The truth is only "right in the middle" when it's based on politics and compromise rather than empirical fact.

Dismissing me for being "rather emphatic" is one way to divert attention from what I've actually said. In any case, although Simonton hasn't even read my book, he's pretty sure it's more of a tantrum than a well-reasoned and scholarly indictment.

Science doesn't work that way.

Dr. Judith Schlesinger

Dr. Sereboff brings up the central dilemma of this whole enterprise: the stubborn and tiresome need to pathologize creativity.

I too would like to "grease the wheels" that drive art and invention, and I think the "mad genius" idea too often serves as a roadblock to creative work.

Unfortunately,it's also a long-running and popular concept and a favorite media spectacle.

The major purpose of "The Insanity Hoax" is to examine the wobbly empirical foundation of the myth as well as the host of other factors that keep it in play.

Rather than beating the issue to death, the book provides a fresh perspective. Most people find it a pleasure to read.

I invite you to take a look for yourself; as a painter, you might well understand the passion and persistence required to express something new.

Carole Brooks Platt, Ph.D.

Not having read Dr. Schlesinger's book, I nonetheless found Grant Rich's critique very reasonable in light of my own 17 years of studying the creative process in great poets of the 19th and 20th centuries who experienced dissociative inner voices or used techniques like seances, automatic writing or Ouija boards. I thoroughly disliked Rothenberg's book. I think at issue is not madness per see, but genetic predisposition and traumatic experiences that trigger emotional disorders along with enhanced right-hemispheric, i.e. atypical, cerebral dominance that favors creativity. I'd elaborate further, but you can consult my publications and blogs which are all about this subject. See my publications at and read my blogs at, especially

Dr. Judith Schlesinger

It's great to have this real-time public forum for correcting misconceptions. To listen to Rich and Simonton, I’m either a raging Medusa or a pouting obstructionist; certainly there could be no other reason to disagree with the prevailing wisdom.

Actually, I'm a seasoned psychologist, educator, author, and clinician, and somehow, despite my alleged cluelessness, I was asked to write a chapter for a new textbook on creativity and mental illness (Cambridge, 2013, in press). My own book "The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the myth of the mad genius," which was given such short shrift in Dr. Rich's review and Dr. Simonton hasn’t even read, has already become a text on its own in university courses both here and abroad.

The truth is that while Simonton has built an impressive franchise on creative greatness, making him the usual go-to guy on the subject, he is neither the sole nor final arbiter of Truth. Certainly his Web site is a monument to his hard work and ambition, given the scores of publications and honors that stretch all the way back to junior high school (yes, those are included too). But none of this makes him immune to criticism, even if few in the field ever try it.

So I will continue to say what I believe, despite any more personal attacks on my motivation for doing so. I fear we will always disagree on the validity of evaluating dead people, especially on newly-minted variables that are left undefined. Unlike me, Simonton does not criticize Ludwig's nebulous “greatness” factor of "anger at mother" or Jamison's use of "cosmic temperament" as a bipolar symptom; he himself ranks U.S. presidents on their "pettiness" and "poise and polish" without specifying how such things can be quantified.

And this highlights our most fundamental disagreement. Simonton seems to consider consensus fully as compelling as data, equating the theoretical convergence of like-minded psychologists with accumulated “evidence” despite their incompatibilities in methodology and design. In contrast, I think true empiricism requires far more than agreement.

Finally, if a field is too nebulous to permit genuine experimental rigor – and this one may well be - at least we shouldn’t dilute the integrity of science by using it to describe what is little more than professional compromise and intimidation. As Rich suggested in his review of “The Insanity Hoax”: can’t we all just get along?

Sterling Funk

I am a student studying counseling psychology in Mexico. It is interesting what we consider as creative people or mad people depending on how they use their creativeness and relate to others. In the past few days looking at the movie masacre it would be easy to label James Holmes as mad. Although showing that he has been a scholarly student and his plan to what happened he seems to be very creative. How should he be labeled?

Paula J Caplan

Having read every word of Dr. Schlesinger's book, I can say (as one who specializes in research methodology and critical thinking and has authored a textbook and many articles about those matters) that I am impressed by her analysis of the relevant research literature, and I would urge people to read her work. It is not unusual but certainly demoralizing in 2012 to see a woman's work dismissed on the grounds that it is strong. Just imagine what those do write so dismissively would say if a man had written Dr. Schlesinger's book. In fact, Dr. Schlesinger has done a huge service by pointing out the inaccuracies and dangers of insisting that creativity comes from mental illness. There is way too much psychopathologizing going on in the world as it is, without making people worry that they cannot be creative unless they are "crazy."

Dr. Judith Schlesinger

Thanks for pointing all that out, Dr. Caplan.

You ask: what would the patronizers say if a man had written my book? Probably something like, "Well-done!" followed by a slap on the back, a couple of beers, and the miraculous transformation of my "stridency" into his "daring to challenge the status quo."

Geoffrey Wills

Judith Schlesinger writes at length in her book about my paper Forty Lives in the bebop Business: Mental Health in a Group of Eminent Jazz Musicians. In doing so, her approach is to get facts wrong, distort what I said, or both. There are many instances of this. For instance, she comments on my supposed 'explicit silliness' regarding John Coltrane. She was able to prompt 'sustained laughter' from a number of musicians because I referred to Coltrane's obsessive, excessive practicing. In that case, they were also laughing at the opinions of jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Al McKibbon, Shirley Scott, Steve Kuhn, Benny Golson, Art Taylor and Billy Hart, who have all remarked on the phenomenon at various times. Lewis Porter, in his acclaimed 1998 Coltrane biography (even approved of by Coltrane's son Ravi!)states that 'there is absolute agreement that Coltrane practiced maniacally ... there is even a suggestion that Coltrane's practicing was obsessive, that it was not a simple matter of working to improve, that there was an emotional desperation and drive that was somehow beyond the norm...' Porter has no axe to grind.He is a Professor of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, and is a practicing musician who believes that Coltrane's music is 'great and profound and brilliant' ( Feb. 24, 2004). I'm accused of writing a paper that is 'confusing', 'baffling', and 'a bit of a head-scratcher', simply because I state that Miles Davis overcame his early problems to become very successful and highly respected. In doing this I 'seem to reverse myself.' Where is the contradiction in having early problems and overcoming them?

Dr. Judith Schlesinger

The fact that Miles, Benny G., Steve K., or any other musician refers to Coltrane's practicing as "maniacal" does not a mental disorder make. Last I looked, none of these estimable players was a clinician.

It's even possible that some were so awed by (jealous of?) Coltrane's intensity that they preferred to label it as unbalanced. But that doesn't make it so.

Lewis Porter happens to be a friend, and a brilliant one: somehow I doubt he was delivering a definitive psychiatric diagnosis with words like "it has been suggested" that Coltrane's behaviors were "somehow beyond the norm." Nor does this "suggestion" acquire that weight because the book was acclaimed and Coltrane's son approved of it, as Wills seems to imply.

But the mad genius tradition is famous for armchair diagnoses: it doesn't take much to pin a label on a genius when society fully expects to find one already in place.

This is part of my objection to Wills's paper. My concerns were clear and substantive, rather than mystifying and petty as he paints them here.

Those who want to see for themselves can read pages 122-124 of "The Insanity Hoax," or track down our original tango in the British Journal of Psychiatry (2004, February and April).

Geoffrey Wills

So Sclesinger's musician pals are OK when they're laughingly agreeing with her, but when they aren't, that means they're jealously calling their colleagues unbalanced. And if she's such a good friend of Lewis Porter, why doesn't she quote him correctly? He said "there is absolute agreement that Coltrane practiced maniacally." Another example of her misquoting: on page 120 of her book she refers to Arnold Ludwig's book The Price of Greatness,and says "Ludwig claims trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke had 'mental health symptoms' because he 'began having increasing trouble with his mouthpiece.' Ludwig does no such thing. In actual fact, on page 171 of his book, although he does refer to Beiderbecke's embouchure, he makes no specific mention of mental symptoms. He is, rather, referring to Bix's problems caused by alcoholism, as described on page 286 of the acclaimed Beiderbecke biography by Sudhalter and Evans (1974),and Ludwig's comments are made in the context of other artists who experienced problems with alcohol. Schlesinger then uses her misquote to get trumpeter Randy Sandke to say that Ludwig made a "totally uninformed and specious judgement." Of course, biographies can't be trusted, unless Sclesinger wants to use one to tell us that "unquestionably the great Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge was addicted to opium (page 102)"

Dr. Judith Schlesinger

Wow, the tone is rapidly deteriorating here. Wills asks: "If she's such a good friend of Lewis Porter, why doesn't she quote him correctly?" The answer is that I used Wills's very own quote of Porter, directly from his last post, trusting that it was accurate (I don't have a copy of Lewis's book). Clearly, that trust was misplaced.

It's not very useful to go back and forth picking nits and pointing fingers when we have such basic and irreconcilable differences. The plain and overarching fact is this: Wills approves of diagnosing dead people on the basis of whatever historical scraps, hearsay, circumstantial evidence, and authoritative (if non-professional) opinion can be gathered up together. I do not.

For instance, in his paper, Wills mentions the severe learning disabilities of Errol Garner's twin in order to convey the impression that Errol must have had problems too. Then he throws the famously stable and sunny Dizzy Gillespie into the mix by sharing the news that he was beaten by his father as a child, as if this was an uncommon practice at that time and space, and also one that inevitably led to mental problems. But this fits with the diagnosis-by-implication model that is so popular with historiometricians, and that so wildly inflates the link between great creativity and psychopathology in the public mind.

At least Wills doesn't go to the extreme of pretending that this technique involves "science" because the variables can be arbitrarily "quantified."

I knew "The Insanity Hoax" would be controversial, and set the wagons of psychology to circling. What's gratifying is that none of the snipers has refuted my central point: that the mad genius link is pseudoscientific and way overblown. It's all been nibbling at the edges, where bites are easier to take.

Geoffrey Wills

Here's another piece of pseudoscience for Schlesinger to get her teeth into:

Kyaga,S. et al(2011) Creativity and Mental Disorder: Family Study of 300 000 People With Severe Mental Disorder. British Journal of Psychiatry, 199: 373-379

Subjects with bipolar disorder and their first-degree relatives engaged significantly more often in creative professions than controls.

Wow. These guys are really nibbling round the edges.

Dr. Judith Schlesinger

I respectfully suggest that you examine the article more closely, including the authors' own description of its limitations. Dr. Patra's list of confounding factors might also be instructive in this regard (published BJP Dec 13, 2011).

Even a dazzling N of 300,000 (public records) does not preclude questions about a study's validity. But it will certainly discourage most people from asking any.

Frank Dumont

Having read the series of cogent posts bearing on Dr. Schlesinger’s book and the review of it by Grant J. Rich, several thoughts come to mind that I hope aren’t excessively redundant in context. [Disclosure: I have an interest but not an expertise in this domain.] First, I’m reminded of Gregory Kimble’s aphorism: Nature abhors dichotomies. Referring to geniuses or madpersons in categorical terms is troublesome, for all personological qualities are continuous variables—not dichotomous variables. The degrees of anyone’s mental disorder or level of intelligence is often difficult to calibrate—and the accuracy with which one can aggregate humans into one or another (or both) of the arbitrarily configured “bins” at issue is still impossible to determine. Anyhow if one Venn-diagrammed the weighted constituent elements of these two mental constructs (madness and genius)—I’m sure this has been done—one would probably not find that they greatly overlap.

Second, madness and genius are mental constructs; they only exist per se as confections of our minds, helping us to order our thoughts and only thence guide our behaviors.
The folkloric belief that geniuses tend to be mad is a mischievous notion. Because the entertainment industry has given so much visibility to Ezra Pound, Jackson Pollack, John Nash, Vincent van Gogh, Willem de Kooning, David Foster Wallace, and other extraordinarily talented individuals who suffered from mental problems, the erroneous inference is made that most highly talented and creative persons are troubled. Is this not an expression of the availability and vividness heuristics that Daniel Kahneman, Richard Nisbett, and others have warned and taught us about?

Third, some folklore is veridical. Neuroscience will undoubtedly shed light on this issue. Hans Eysenck (1995), a brilliant researcher and psychometrician in his own right, argued that there was a positive correlation between creativity and performance on his Psychoticism scale. Simonton, Andreasen, and others have demonstrated that some personological correlates of creativity do “place” creative outliers outside a “mannered” mainstream—but not in the insane bin. The more creative these outliers are, the more we might expect them to drift toward the margins of society.

A personal, unscientific note: I have trouble thinking of one Nobel, Man Booker, Goncourt, or Pulitzer laureate who was mad—though some were admittedly eccentric.

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Editor of PsycCRITIQUES

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