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.
Trump’s supporters backed a time-honored American political tradition, disavowing racism while promising to enact a broad agenda of discrimination.
THIRTY YEARS AGO, nearly half of Louisiana voted for a Klansman, and the media struggled to explain why.
It was 1990 and David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, astonished political observers when he came within striking distance of defeating incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, earning 43 percent of the vote. If Johnston’s Republican rival hadn’t dropped out of the race and endorsed him at the last minute, the outcome might have been different.
Was it economic anxiety? The Washington Post reported that the state had “a large working class that has suffered through a long recession.” Was it a blow against the state’s hated political establishment? An editorial from United Press International explained, “Louisianans showed the nation by voting for Duke that they were mad as hell and not going to take it any more.” Was it anti-Washington rage? A Loyola University pollster argued, “There were the voters who liked Duke, those who hated J. Bennett Johnston, and those who just wanted to send a message to Washington.”
How did Andrew Anglin go from being an antiracist vegan to the alt-right’s most vicious troll and propagandist—and how might he be stopped?
On December 16, 2016, Tanya Gersh answered her phone and heard gunshots. Startled, she hung up. Gersh, a real-estate agent who lives in Whitefish, Montana, assumed it was a prank call. But the phone rang again. More gunshots. Again, she hung up. Another call. This time, she heard a man’s voice: “This is how we can keep the Holocaust alive,” he said. “We can bury you without touching you.”
When Gersh put down the phone, her hands were shaking. She was one of only about 100 Jews in Whitefish and the surrounding Flathead Valley, and she knew there were white nationalists and “sovereign citizens” in the area. But Gersh had lived in Whitefish for more than 20 years, since just after college, and had always considered the scenic ski town an idyllic place. She didn’t even have a key to her house—she’d never felt the need to lock her door. Now that sense of security was about to be shattered.
Turkey Day usually represents a late-season reset for pro football, but myriad controversies portend a more serious tone this year.
The National Football League’s tradition of playing on Thanksgiving Day is also its oldest. Back in 1920, the year the league was founded, 12 proto-football teams squared off in six Turkey Day matchups. Since then the NFL has hosted Thanksgiving games in every year but four—all during World War II—with the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions emerging as annual hosts and other teams rotating through to play in front of a tryptophan-tripping, football-mad nation.
And as the NFL has ballooned into the most popular professional sports league in North America,its Thanksgiving custom has grown as well, adding pyrotechnics and halftime shows to impress massive TV audiences. Aside from the Super Bowl, no celebration better represents the NFL’s largesse, cultural might, spectacle, and promise ofescapism than Thanksgiving—theleague’s entire self-image, shrunken down to one day.
The post-Weinstein moment isn’t a war on sex. It’s a long-overdue revolution.
One of the principal pleasures of Mad Men, on rich display beginning with the pilot episode, was looking at all of the crazy things people used to be able to do in offices: smoke, drink, and—if they were male—grope and corner and sexually humiliate the women, who could either put up with it or quit.
It’s just about impossible to imagine someone lighting a cigarette in today’s hyper-sanitized workplace; anyone with liquor on his or her breath at midday is usually targeted as a massive loser or frog-marched to human resources. But to look at the shocking and ever-growing list of prominent men recently and credibly accused of acts ranging from sexual harassment to violent rape is to realize that abhorrent treatment of women is alive and well in many American workplaces.
A study of the famous animal’s bones suggests the conventional wisdom about how clones age is probably wrong.
Dolly the sheep was the first animal to be cloned from an adult cell, and like many firsts, she came to stand in for all of her kind.
So when scientists suspected she had short telomeres—stretches of DNA that normally shorten with age—people wondered if it was because she was cloned from an adult cell. When she started to limp at age five, headlines said that her arthritis “dents faith in cloning.” And when she died at age six—as the result of a common lung virus that also killed other sheep in her barn—her short life again became a parable about cloning. A certain narrative took hold.
Then last year, Kevin Sinclair, a developmental biologist at the University of Nottingham, published a paper about several clones including Dolly’s four “sisters,” who were created from the same cell line as Dolly and lived to the old age of eight (about 70 in human years). They were quite healthy for their age. So of course, he kept getting questions, like if these animals are so healthy, then why was Dolly so unhealthy? It was Dolly that everyone cared about.
Thanksgiving break is here, which means it's time for the "Turkey Drop."
Many college freshmen are home this week for the first time since August. They’ll retreat to what is comfortable – spending time with family, old friends, and for some, a high-school sweetheart. Thanksgiving will also be a time for big questions, particularly for those freshmen still in high-school relationships. Did they take advantage of their first three months in college, or did they lose out by spending too much time on Skype? During their first trip home, freshmen have to decide whether they stick it out with their first love, or succumb to what is known as the “Turkey Drop”— the phenomenon of high-school couples breaking up when they come home for their first Thanksgiving.
In a presidency defined by its unpredictability, one of the few constants is the president’s eagerness to attack black people for failing to show deference.
When, in a game last Sunday in Mexico City versus the New England Patriots, the Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch chose to sit during the “Star Spangled-Banner,” and then stood during the Mexican National Anthem, the idea of the multiverse—multiple realities and infinite branching probabilities—suddenly seemed inadequate. As soon as the cameras focused on Lynch, this plane of existence narrowed to a single undeniable probability: that President Donald Trump was going to tweet about it sometime soon.
Trump happily obliged fate. On Monday morning at 6:25am, in the block of time reserved for blasting people and things he’s seen on cable news that he doesn’t like, the president tweeted that “next time [the] NFL should suspend him for remainder of season.” Utilizing the extra 140 extra characters Twitter recently bestowed, Trump was also able to imply that Lynch was a factor in the the NFL’s sinking ratings. With that, Lynch became just the latest in a line of outspoken black people that Trump has attacked. It’s kind of a thing for him.
The outspoken lawyer-turned-ESPN analyst may be the moral conscience college basketball needs this season, as it grapples with its biggest scandal in decades.
After 22 years as a college-basketball commentator for ESPN, Jay Bilas is now slogging through his busiest November yet. Finding himself far-flung during a monthstacked with tournaments and traveling from Chicago to Maui—with maybe a night to recharge in his Charlotte-area home—is common practice by now. But the addition of the Phil Knight 80, a Thanksgiving tournament in Oregon that commemorates the Nike founder’s 80th birthday, has thrown Bilas’s carefully controlled schedule for a loop. “For me to do 12 games in basically seven days,” Bilas told me by phone last week, “is unprecedented.”
Such is the life of perhaps the most well-regarded and trusted individual in all of college basketball. With his voice honed over the decades into a reassuring timbre, Bilas effectively serves as the sport’s Walter Cronkite—a respected commentator unafraid to speak openly about an American institution beset by a fraught and ongoing debate about amateurism (and whether student-athletes should be paid), as well as a bribery scandal that has mushroomed into its most serious crisis in years. “The NCAA makes its own rules, and their rules are bad,” Bilas said during a panel discussion in Baltimore last month. “That’s been pointed out forever, and so for the people in charge, and specifically the president of the NCAA, to talk about some code of silence in college basketball that people weren’t telling them what was going on—they knew exactly what was going on.”
A woman and her husband are racing to find a treatment for her deadly genetic sleep disorder before symptoms set in.
Almost everyone has had at least one night where it’s been impossible to fall asleep. But Sonia Vallabh dreads those nights more than most. For her, insomnia is more than an inconvenience—it’s the first sign of the deadly disease that she and her husband, Eric Minikel, have dedicated their lives to studying.
Called fatal familial insomnia, or FFI, it’s an extremely rare genetic disease that causes progressively worsening sleeplessness. Difficulty sleeping soon turns into total insomnia, causing rapid physical and mental deterioration and, inevitably, death—within a year, usually sooner.
“It’s an unbelievably swift and brutal way to die,” said Vallabh said.
Four years ago, she watched helplessly as her mother hovered in a twilight state—stuck somewhere between wakefulness and sleep—before dying at age 52.
How leaders lose mental capacities—most notably for reading other people—that were essential to their rise
If power were a prescription drug, it would come with a long list of known side effects. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can even make Henry Kissinger believe that he’s sexually magnetic. But can it cause brain damage?
When various lawmakers lit into John Stumpf at a congressional hearing last fall, each seemed to find a fresh way to flay the now-former CEO of Wells Fargo for failing to stop some 5,000 employees from setting up phony accounts for customers. But it was Stumpf’s performance that stood out. Here was a man who had risen to the top of the world’s most valuable bank, yet he seemed utterly unable to read a room. Although he apologized, he didn’t appear chastened or remorseful. Nor did he seem defiant or smug or even insincere. He looked disoriented, like a jet-lagged space traveler just arrived from Planet Stumpf, where deference to him is a natural law and 5,000 a commendably small number. Even the most direct barbs—“You have got to be kidding me” (Sean Duffy of Wisconsin); “I can’t believe some of what I’m hearing here” (Gregory Meeks of New York)—failed to shake him awake.