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.
The GOP planned a dynastic restoration in 2016. Instead, it triggered an internal class war. Can the party reconcile the demands of its donors with the interests of its rank and file?
The angriest and most pessimistic people in America aren’t the hipster protesters who flitted in and out of Occupy Wall Street. They aren’t the hashtavists of #BlackLivesMatter. They aren’t the remnants of the American labor movement or the savvy young dreamers who confront politicians with their American accents and un-American legal status.
The angriest and most pessimistic people in America are the people we used to call Middle Americans. Middle-class and middle-aged; not rich and not poor; people who are irked when asked to press 1 for English, and who wonder how white male became an accusation rather than a description.
You can measure their pessimism in polls that ask about their expectations for their lives—and for those of their children. On both counts, whites without a college degree express the bleakest view. You can see the effects of their despair in the new statistics describing horrifying rates of suicide and substance-abuse fatality among this same group, in middle age.
Mounting evidence that Trump’s election was aided by Russian interference presents a challenge to the American system of government—with lasting consequences for democracy.
Day by day, revelation after revelation, the legitimacy of the Trump presidency is seeping away. The question of what to do about this loss is becoming ever more urgent and frightening.
The already thick cloud of discredit over the Trump presidency thickened deeper Friday, June 23. The Washington Post reported that the CIA told President Obama last year that Vladimir Putin had personally and specifically instructed his intelligence agencies to intervene in the U.S. presidential election to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump.
Whether the Trump campaign knowingly coordinated its activities with the Russians remains uncertain. The Trump campaign may have been a wholly passive and unwitting beneficiary. Yes, it’s curious that the Russians allegedly directed their resources to the Rust Belt states also targeted by the Trump campaign. But it’s conceivable they were all just reading the same polls on FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics.
If the party cares about winning, it needs to learn how to appeal to the white working class.
The strategy was simple. A demographic wave—long-building, still-building—would carry the party to victory, and liberalism to generational advantage. The wave was inevitable, unstoppable. It would not crest for many years, and in the meantime, there would be losses—losses in the midterms and in special elections; in statehouses and in districts and counties and municipalities outside major cities. Losses in places and elections where the white vote was especially strong.
But the presidency could offset these losses. Every four years the wave would swell, receding again thereafter but coming back in the next presidential cycle, higher, higher. The strategy was simple. The presidency was everything.
The most popular news channel in the Arab world sits uneasily at the center of the Qatar crisis.
Earlier this month, managers at Al Jazeera, the most popular news channel in the Arab world, summoned nervous journalists into a glass-paneled conference room in the network’s headquarters in Doha. A coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia had just imposed an embargo on Qatar, closing its airspace and expelling thousands of Qatari citizens. One of the conditions for lifting the blockade, according to a list leaked on Thursday, was reportedly the closure of Al Jazeera. The network’s leadership wanted to reassure its staff that their jobs were safe. “We’re not planning any changes right now,” journalists were told, according to two participants in the meeting. That left quite a bit unsaid. (I resigned from Al Jazeera English in mid-2013 after working there for nearly four years.)
Normally, a bill this unpopular wouldn’t stand a chance. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s health-care bill seems designed to let reluctant senators amend it, and claim victory.
The United States has never had a Senate leader as ruthless, as willing to bend, distort and break the rules, traditions and precedents of the Senate as Mitch McConnell. And the Senate has probably never had a majority leader as effective at accomplishing his goals as Mitch McConnell—making even Lyndon Johnson look like a neophyte in comparison.
That is why no one should believe that the McConnell-crafted health-policy bill is dead, despite the growing opposition and the fact that the overwhelming majority of health-policy analysts and health providers say the bill is a walking disaster. It eviscerates Medicaid—a program widely misunderstood as simply insurance for poor people, but which uses most of its money for long-term care for the elderly, and basic protection for the disabled and mentally ill populations. The overall Medicaid cuts, while spread over a longer time frame, are more severe than the draconian House bill.
My wife and I had always dreamed of living in Italy. Six years ago we finally made the move with our two young children. We rented a fourteenth-century farmhouse surrounded by olive groves and vineyards in the enchanting hills south of Florence. There were two famous landmarks near us: the villa La Sfacciata, once the home of Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine explorer who gave America its name; and the villa I Collazzi, said to have been designed by Michelangelo, where Prince Charles painted many of his watercolors of the Tuscan landscape.
The olive grove beyond our front door boasted a third landmark, of sorts. It had been the site of one of the most horrific murders in Italian history, one of a string of double homicides committed by a serial killer known as “the Monster of Florence.” As an author of murder mysteries, I was more curious than dismayed. I began researching the case. It didn’t take me long to realize I’d stumbled across one of the most harrowing and remarkable stories in the annals of crime.
By searching the church's famed family trees, scientists have tracked down a cancer-causing mutation that came west with a pioneer couple—just in time to save the lives of their great-great-great-great grandchildren.
Nobody knew it then, but the genetic mutation came to Utah by wagon with the Hinman family. Lyman Hinman found the Mormon faith in 1840. Amid a surge of religious fervor, he persuaded his wife, Aurelia, and five children to abandon their 21-room Massachusetts house in search of Zion. They went first to Nauvoo, Illinois, where the faith’s prophet and founder, Joseph Smith, was holding forth—until Smith was murdered by a mob and his followers were run out of town. They kept going west and west until there were no towns to be run out of. Food was scarce. They boiled elk horns.The children’s mouths erupted in sores from scurvy. Aurelia lost all her teeth. But they survived. And so did the mutation.
On the basic social disconnection that underlies addiction
“I think that—and I should be careful about how I say this, but—I do think using Facebook sometimes feels like using heroin,” Vivek Murthy, the recent-past U.S. Surgeon General, said yesterday.
The comment came at the Aspen Ideas Festival, in a room with green tape on the floor in the shape of a rectangular box, along with about 100 people who came to participate in a sort of experiment about social isolation and ideological polarization. The session was called “Creating Connections in a Divided World.”
At the start, Murthy noted that Americans report being twice as lonely today as compared to the 1980s, and that this is a serious health concern. The question before us was, why the loneliness? Why do we divide and isolate ourselves? The setup was simple. A moderator posed a series of questions to the group. For example, if you could be a fabric, would you be silk or corduroy? Everyone was then supposed to choose a side, and then physically move toward one side of the big green box or the other, depending on how strongly they identify with a given answer. One of the more interesting prompts was: Do you identify more as a hand-shaker, or a hugger? It turns out almost everyone is a hugger. At least, they say they are—the handshake is still the default. It turns out that our former surgeon general is also a hugger, I note.
The president’s policies in office have aligned almost perfectly with Vladimir Putin’s goals.
Fifty-four years ago this month, former President John F. Kennedy delivered the “Strategy of Peace,” a powerful address that captured America’s indispensable leadership at the height of the Cold War. Kennedy knew that our country could not guard against the Soviet Union alone, for he believed that “genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts.”
Incredibly, the man who now leads the United States seems to find himself locked in an alarming and perilous embrace with the Russian government. These ties threaten to weaken a system of alliances that have held Russia—and countless other threats to the international community—at bay since the conclusion of the Second World War.
She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.
The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.