Every strength has a flip side, as my mother always says. The same communication trait that makes it easy for me to write volumes of words also means that, at times, I talk an awful lot. Someone driven to excel may also drive everyone around them nuts with their singular focus. A tendency to take bold risks can lead to astounding success ... or reckless disaster. And according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science, that interconnected relationship between strength and weakness may exist in the field of creativity, as well--in the rather scary form of an actual genetic link between high levels of creativity and mental illness.
The idea that highly creative people have more than their share of depression, alcoholism, and other psychological issues or struggles is not new, and anecdotal examples are legion. Van Gogh cut off his ear and suffered depressing visions before finally committing suicide. The writer David Foster Wallace (who gave such a sharp, witty, irreverent and highly memorable commencement address to Kenyon College graduates in 2005 that the Wall Street Journal even saw fit to reprint it) committed suicide last year at the age of 46. Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of other writers, artists, and creative individuals have also taken their own lives. And that doesn't even get into the much larger group who created wonderful works of art and brilliance even as they battled serious and debilitating depression or other problems.
There are also numerous examples of more technically-inclined geniuses who have struggled with demons of madness. A new graphic novel/comic book called Logicomix delves into the world of the real-life mathematicians who relentlessly pursued a quest for logical certainty in mathematics throughout the 20th century. (A New York Times review of it can be found here.) One of the book's themes, aside from the pursuit of logical perfection, is the mathematicians' struggles to ward off mental illness. One of the logicians, Bertrand Russell, apparently claimed that it was only his love of mathematics that saved him from suicide--although two of his children developed schizophrenia and killed themselves. Another logician, Georg Cantor, died in an insane asylum, and a third, Kurt Godel, became so paranoid about being poisoned that he starved himself to death.
What causes these brilliant, creative minds to fall into such dark places? Does obsession with an idea--a common trait in those driven to pursue its exploration and expression, whether in words or formulas--somehow disconnect us with an important perspective or grounding that a more balanced focus provides? Or are brilliantly artistic or creative people actually predisposed to mental illness?
Possibly the latter, according to just-published research conducted by Hungarian psychiatrist Szabolcs Keri. (You can access the Psychological Science article here, although there's a charge to view it.) In order to explore a possible genetic link between creativity and psychosis, Keri focused his research on the T/T variant of the Neuregulin 1 gene. Neuregulin 1 plays a role in a variety of brain processes, including development and strengthening communication between neurons. But the T/T variant of the gene has also been associated with a greater risk for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Keri's research study was admittedly limited. He interviewed 128 study participants, all of whom had "high intellectual and academic performance." The group was divided by genotypes (variants) into three groups: T/T, C/T, and C/C. Keri found no difference in the groups on the basis of gender or IQ. But he found a distinct difference when it came to scores on creativity tests. The T/T group scored significantly higher in terms of creativity; almost twice as high as the C/C group in some categories.
Why would the T/T group score so much higher on creativity? It may be that the "reduced cognitive inhibition" associated with that variant allows for more creative mental wanderings in more ways than one. A terrific imagination can also lead to terrific nightmares. But what I found particularly interesting was Keri's thought on why the species would retain a gene variant that caused such big problems. According to Darwin, after all, a gene variant that led to debilitating disorders should die out. And yet, the T/T gene variant persists.
"Why are genetic polymorphisms related to severe mental disorders retained in the gene pool of a population?" Keri asked. "A possible answer is that these genetic variations may have a positive impact on psychological function."
The sword, in other words, might have two sides. Creativity is good for advancing the species, even if it sometimes leads to madness. That kind of evolutionary trade-off also doesn't seem to be unique to the neuregulin 1 gene. Research published this past June by John McDonald, chair of the Biology department at Georgia Tech and chief research scientist at the Ovarian Cancer Institute, raised the possibility that the same characteristic that allowed human brains to develop so much bigger and faster than other primates may also be the reason human cells are more susceptible to cancer.
"The results from our analysis suggest that humans aren't as efficient as chimpanzees in carrying out programmed cell death. We believe this difference may have evolved as a way to increase brain size and associated cognitive ability in humans, but the cost could be an increased propensity for cancer," McDonald was quoted as saying.
In a ideal world, the strengths could be separated from the weaknesses, and a perfect species could evolve. But the same law of unintended consequences that plagues so many advances we make, from increased longevity leading to overpopulation problems and antibiotics creating super-resistant bacteria to computer-controlled systems becoming more vulnerable to viruses and hackers ... may be just a continuation of a dichotomy that's been playing out in our DNA for centuries. Our strengths create potential vulnerabilities. There is a dark side to The Force.
A military person would call this phenomenon a "reverse salient." A practictioner of Taoism would say it's the balance of yin and yang. My mother would simply say it's the way of the world. But if these researchers' hypotheses are correct, it means that growth and creativity are important enough to the species that nature has decided they're worth even the ravages of cancer and mental illness to preserve. And that, itself, is a thought worth pondering.
In his first extended press conference at the White House, the president railed against his critics and unspooled a series of bitter complaints.
Have you ever had a job you loved, but one where you felt like you’d achieved everything you could? So you looked for a new job, went through a fairly grueling application process, if you do say so yourself, got the offer. Then you started the job, and you hated it. Worse, all the tricks you’d learned in your old job seemed to be pretty much useless in the new one. Did you ever have that experience?
The president of the United States can sympathize.
Donald Trump held the first extended press conference of his presidency on Thursday, and it was a stunning, disorienting experience. He mused about nuclear war, escalated his feud with the press, continued to dwell on the vote count in November, asked whether a black reporter was friends with the Congressional Black Caucus, and, almost as an afterthought, announced his selection for secretary of labor.
Plagues, revolutions, massive wars, collapsed states—these are what reliably reduce economic disparities.
Calls to make America great again hark back to a time when income inequality receded even as the economy boomed and the middle class expanded. Yet it is all too easy to forget just how deeply this newfound equality was rooted in the cataclysm of the world wars.
The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward. Concentrated for the most part between 1914 and 1945, this “Great Compression” (as economists call it) of inequality took several more decades to fully run its course across the developed world until the 1970s and 1980s, when it stalled and began to go into reverse.
Neither truck drivers nor bankers would put up with a system like the one that influences medical residents’ schedules.
The path to becoming a doctor is notoriously difficult. Following pre-med studies and four years of medical school, freshly minted M.D.s must spend anywhere from three to seven years (depending on their chosen specialty) training as “residents” at an established teaching hospital. Medical residencies are institutional apprenticeships—and are therefore structured to serve the dual, often dueling, aims of training the profession’s next generation and minding the hospital’s labor needs.
How to manage this tension between “education and service” is a perennial question of residency training, according to Janis Orlowski, the chief health-care officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Orlowski says that the amount of menial labor residents are required to perform, known in the profession as “scut work,” has decreased "tremendously" since she was a resident in the 1980s. But she acknowledges that even "institutions that are committed to education … constantly struggle with this,” trying to stay on the right side of the boundary between training and taking advantage of residents.
By excusing Donald Trump’s behavior, some evangelical leaders enabled the internet provocateur’s ascent.
The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) takes place this week near Washington, D.C., the first such gathering since Donald Trump took office. The conference purports to be a gathering for like-minded folks who believe, generally, in the well-established principles of the conservative movement, as enunciated by the American Conservative Union.
This year, aside from President Trump himself, activist Milo Yiannopoulos was briefly granted a featured speaking slot, and it caused a lot of disruption, garment-rending, gnashing of teeth, and in-fighting on the right.
Yiannopoulos, who prefers to go by MILO (yes, capitalized), is a controversial figure with dubious conservative credentials, most famous for being outrageous during speeches on his college campus tour, soberly called the “Dangerous Faggot” tour. Throughout the 2016 election, Yiannopoulos seemed to enjoy nothing quite so much as the crass, antagonistic side of candidate Trump. He didn’t just celebrate it; he rode it like a wave to greater stardom.
Trump’s attacks on the free press don’t just threaten the media—they undermine the public’s capacity to think, act, and defend democracy.
Are Donald Trump’s latest attacks on the press really that bad? Are they that out-of-the-ordinary, given the famous record of complaints nearly all his predecessors have lodged? (Even George Washington had a hostile-press problem.)
Are the bellows of protest from reporters, editors, and others of my press colleagues justified? Or just another sign that the press is nearly as thin-skinned as Trump himself, along with being even less popular?
I could prolong the buildup, but here is the case I’m going to make: Yes, they’re that bad, and worse.
I think Trump’s first month in office, capped by his “enemy of the people” announcement about the press, has been even more ominous and destructive than the Trump of the campaign trail would have prepared us for, which is of course saying something. And his “lying media” campaign matters not only in itself, which it does, but also because it is part of what is effectively an assault by Trump on the fundamentals of democratic governance.
The Italian philosopher Julius Evola is an unlikely hero for defenders of the “Judeo-Christian West.”
In the summer of 2014, years before he became the White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon gave a lecture via Skype at a conference held inside the Vatican. He spoke about the need to defend the values of the “Judeo-Christian West”—a term he used 11 times—against crony capitalism and libertarian capitalism, secularization, and Islam. He also mentioned the late Julius Evola, a far-right Italian philosopher popular with the American alt-right movement. What he did not mention is that Evola hated not only Jews, but Christianity, too.
References to Evola abounded on websites such as Breitbart News, The Daily Stormer, and AltRight.com well before The New York Timesnoted the Bannon-Evola connection earlier this month. But few have discussed the fundamental oddity of Evola serving as an intellectual inspiration for the alt-right. Yes, the thinker was a virulent anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer who influenced far-right movements in Italy from the 1950s until his death in 1974, but shouldn’t his contempt for Christianity make him an unlikely hero for those purporting to defend “Judeo-Christian” values?
It’s a great physics thought experiment—and an awful accident in 1978.
What would happen if you stuck your body inside a particle accelerator? The scenario seems like the start of a bad Marvel comic, but it happens to shed light on our intuitions about radiation, the vulnerability of the human body, and the very nature of matter. Particle accelerators allow physicists to study subatomic particles by speeding them up in powerful magnetic fields and then tracing the interactions that result from collisions. By delving into the mysteries of the universe, colliders have entered the zeitgeist and tapped the wonders and fears of our age.
Designers use “benevolent deception” to trick users into trusting the system.
In a fit of productivity, I did my taxes early this year. They were a bit more complex than usual, so I set aside some time to click through TurboTax and make sure I got everything right. Throughout the process, the online tax-preparation program repeatedly reassured me that it had helped me identify every possible tax deduction I qualify for, and made sure I didn’t make any mistakes. Attractively animated progress bars filled up while I waited for TurboTax to double- and triple-check my returns.
But as I watched one particularly slick animation, which showed a virtual tax form lighting up line by line—yellow or green—I wondered if what I was seeing actually reflected the progress of a real task being tackled in the background. Did it really take that long to “look over every detail” of my returns, which is what the page said it was doing? Hadn’t TurboTax been checking my work as we went?
The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.
It’s 2021, and President Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka’s arm during his infrequent public appearances.
Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.
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