Navigating Insanity: One Man, One Mind, a Whole World of Questions

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He was socially aloof and even cruel to those close to him, and his writing became progressively more detached from his audience and from reality, culminating in the near-psychotic neologisms and loose associations of Finnegans Wake. Bertrand Russell, a philosopher whose work I admired, had multiple family members who suffered from schizophrenia.

Introduction

Einstein had a son with schizophrenia, and he himself displayed some of the social and interpersonal ineptitudes that can characterize the illness. Based on these clues, I hypothesized that my subjects would have an increased rate of schizophrenia in family members but that they themselves would be relatively well. I also hypothesized that creativity might run in families, based on prevailing views that the tendencies toward psychosis and toward having creative and original ideas were closely linked.

I began by designing a standard interview for my subjects, covering topics such as developmental, social, family, and psychiatric history, and work habits and approach to writing. My final challenge was selecting a control group. After entertaining the possibility of choosing a homogeneous group whose work is not usually considered creative, such as lawyers, I decided that it would be best to examine a more varied group of people from a mixture of professions, such as administrators, accountants, and social workers.

I matched this control group with the writers according to age and educational level. By matching based on education, I hoped to match for IQ, which worked out well; both the test and the control groups had an average IQ of about If having a very high IQ was not what made these writers creative, then what was?

As I began interviewing my subjects, I soon realized that I would not be confirming my schizophrenia hypothesis. If I had paid more attention to Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell, who both suffered from what we today call mood disorder, and less to James Joyce and Bertrand Russell, I might have foreseen this.

One after another, my writer subjects came to my office and spent three or four hours pouring out the stories of their struggles with mood disorder—mostly depression, but occasionally bipolar disorder. At first I had been surprised that nearly all the writers I approached would so eagerly agree to participate in a study with a young and unknown assistant professor—but I quickly came to understand why they were so interested in talking to a psychiatrist.

This is consistent with what some other studies have found. When Joseph Schildkraut, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, studied a group of 15 abstract-expressionist painters in the midth century, he found that half of them had some form of mental illness, mostly depression or bipolar disorder; nearly half of these artists failed to live past age Why does creativity run in families?

What is it that gets transmitted? How much is due to nature and how much to nurture? Are writers especially prone to mood disorders because writing is an inherently lonely and introspective activity? What would I find if I studied a group of scientists instead? These questions percolated in my mind in the weeks, months, and eventually years after the study. As I focused my research on the neurobiology of severe mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and mood disorders, studying the nature of creativity—important as the topic was and is—seemed less pressing than searching for ways to alleviate the suffering of patients stricken with these dreadful and potentially lethal brain disorders.

They know it, too: on a recent trip to London, I was proudly regaled with this information by several different taxi drivers. Using another technique, functional magnetic resonance imaging fMRI , we can watch how the brain behaves when engaged in thought. Designing neuroimaging studies, however, is exceedingly tricky. Capturing human mental processes can be like capturing quicksilver. The brain has as many neurons as there are stars in the Milky Way, each connected to other neurons by billions of spines, which contain synapses that change continuously depending on what the neurons have recently learned.

Capturing brain activity using imaging technology inevitably leads to oversimplifications, as sometimes evidenced by news reports that an investigator has found the location of something—love, guilt, decision making—in a single region of the brain. Many forms of creativity, from writing a novel to discovering the structure of DNA, require this kind of ongoing, iterative process. With functional magnetic resonance imaging, the best we can do is capture brain activity during brief moments in time while subjects are performing some task.

For instance, observing brain activity while test subjects look at photographs of their relatives can help answer the question of which parts of the brain people use when they recognize familiar faces. Creativity, of course, cannot be distilled into a single mental process, and it cannot be captured in a snapshot—nor can people produce a creative insight or thought on demand. I spent many years thinking about how to design an imaging study that could identify the unique features of the creative brain.

Some regions of the brain are highly specialized, receiving sensory information from our eyes, ears, skin, mouth, or nose, or controlling our movements. We call these regions the primary visual, auditory, sensory, and motor cortices. They collect information from the world around us and execute our actions. But we would be helpless, and effectively nonhuman, if our brains consisted only of these regions.

In fact, the most extensively developed regions in the human brain are known as association cortices. These regions help us interpret and make use of the specialized information collected by the primary visual, auditory, sensory, and motor regions. For example, as you read these words on a page or a screen, they register as black lines on a white background in your primary visual cortex. To read, your brain, through miraculously complex processes that scientists are still figuring out, needs to forward those black letters on to association-cortex regions such as the angular gyrus, so that meaning is attached to them; and then on to language-association regions in the temporal lobes, so that the words are connected not only to one another but also to their associated memories and given richer meanings.

My team and I compared this with another system, that of semantic memory, which is a repository of general information and is not personal or time-linked. In this study, we divided episodic memory into two subtypes. This suspicion was based on what we had learned about free association from the psychoanalytic approach to understanding the mind. In the hands of Freud and other psychoanalysts, free association—spontaneously saying whatever comes to mind without censorship—became a window into understanding unconscious processes. Based on my interviews with the creative subjects in my workshop study, and from additional conversations with artists, I knew that such unconscious processes are an important component of creativity.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge once described how he composed an entire line poem about Kubla Khan while in an opiate-induced, dreamlike state, and began writing it down when he awoke; he said he then lost most of it when he got interrupted and called away on an errand—thus the finished poem he published was but a fragment of what originally came to him in his dreamlike state. Based on all this, I surmised that observing which parts of the brain are most active during free association would give us clues about the neural basis of creativity. And what did we find? Once I arrived at this idea, the design for the imaging studies was obvious: I needed to compare the brains of highly creative people with those of control subjects as they engaged in tasks that activated their association cortices.

For years, I had been asking myself what might be special or unique about the brains of the workshop writers I had studied. In my own version of a eureka moment, the answer finally came to me: creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see. To test this capacity, I needed to study the regions of the brain that go crazy when you let your thoughts wander. I needed to target the association cortices.

I was ready to design Creativity Study II. My motivations were partly selfish—I wanted the chance to discuss the creative process with people who might think and work differently, and I thought I could probably learn a lot by listening to just a few people from specific scientific fields. After all, each would be an individual jewel—a fascinating study on his or her own. My individual jewels so far include, among others, the filmmaker George Lucas, the mathematician and Fields Medalist William Thurston, the Pulitzer Prize—winning novelist Jane Smiley, and six Nobel laureates from the fields of chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine.

Apart from stating their names, I do not have permission to reveal individual information about my subjects. And because the study is ongoing each subject can take as long as a year to recruit, making for slow progress , we do not yet have any definitive results—though we do have a good sense of the direction that things are taking.

Did Christianity lead to schizophrenia? Psychosis, psychology and self reference

To participate in the study, each subject spends three days in Iowa City, since it is important to conduct the research using the same MRI scanner. The subjects and I typically get to know each other over dinner at my home and a bottle of Bordeaux from my cellar , and by prowling my acre nature retreat in an all-terrain vehicle, observing whatever wildlife happens to be wandering around. Each experimental task alternates with a control task; during word association, for example, subjects are shown words on a screen and asked to either think of the first word that comes to mind the experimental task or silently repeat the word they see the control task.

Speaking disrupts the scanning process, so subjects silently indicate when they have completed a task by pressing a button on a keypad. Playing word games inside a thumping, screeching hollow tube seems like a far cry from the kind of meandering, spontaneous discovery process that we tend to associate with creativity. You cannot force creativity to happen—every creative person can attest to that. But the essence of creativity is making connections and solving puzzles. As I hypothesized, the creative people have shown stronger activations in their association cortices during all four tasks than the controls have.

This pattern has held true for both the artists and the scientists, suggesting that similar brain processes may underlie a broad spectrum of creative expression. Many creative people are polymaths, people with broad interests in many fields—a common trait among my study subjects. After the brain scans, I settle in with subjects for an in-depth interview. I begin by asking subjects about their life history—where they grew up, where they went to school, what activities they enjoyed.

I ask about their parents—their education, occupation, and parenting style—and about how the family got along. We talk about how the subjects managed the challenges of growing up, any early interests and hobbies particularly those related to the creative activities they pursue as adults , dating patterns, life in college and graduate school, marriages, and child-rearing. I ask them to describe a typical day at work and to think through how they have achieved such a high level of creativity. Two of the 13 creative subjects in my current study have lost a parent to suicide—a rate many times that of the general US population.

Talking with those subjects who have suffered from a mental illness themselves, I hear about how it has affected their work and how they have learned to cope. The creative subjects and their relatives have a higher rate of mental illness than the controls and their relatives do though not as high a rate as I found in the first study , with the frequency being fairly even across the artists and the scientists.

The most-common diagnoses include bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety or panic disorder, and alcoholism. Interestingly, when the physician and researcher Jon L. This suggests a powerful genetic component to schizophrenia. Heston and I discussed whether some particularly creative people owe their gifts to a subclinical variant of schizophrenia that loosens their associative links sufficiently to enhance their creativity but not enough to make them mentally ill.

In this arena, nurture clearly plays a strong role. Half the subjects come from very high-achieving backgrounds, with at least one parent who has a doctoral degree. The majority grew up in an environment where learning and education were highly valued. This is how one person described his childhood:.

Is depression a natural reaction to an insane world?

Our family evenings—just everybody sitting around working. Just working together. No TV. So why do these highly gifted people experience mental illness at a higher-than-average rate? We can only speculate about what those factors might be, but there are some clues in how these people describe themselves and their lifestyles. One possible contributory factor is a personality style shared by many of my creative subjects. These subjects are adventuresome and exploratory. They take risks. They also provide access to a slew of websites known as the Dark Web or Deep Web , which can be reached only through services such as Tor.

Silk Road is the prototypical example of a Dark Web site. Though it has now closed, with its notorious founder in prison, new online black markets have surfaced to take its place. But here's a look at some of the bizarre and creepy things you can stumble on when accessing the dark underbellies of the web, as told by the people who claim to have experienced them.

Cale Guthrie Weissman contributed to an earlier version of this post. Though people tell tales of drugs and other illicit sites, sometimes people use the Dark Web just for silly purposes. One user was playing what was called an Alternate Reality Game. This user got engrossed in the game. It ended with "me driving to New York to answer a pay phone at AM.

That was cool. Sometimes you find weird forums.

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Take this user's example :. I once found a forum dedicated to sharing recordings of the automated messages that tell you the next stop on trains. People would post the recordings that they presumably made themselves and then they would discuss them. It haunts me to this day. I have so many questions. But sometimes things can a bit creepy Here are a few examples. A Redditor writes this creepy tale about using the internet before Google. The user was following the online trail of a site he or she found. Then he or she found a document made just for the user, making it known that the Redditor was not alone.

The whole story goes that the user came upon a random page of what seemed to be "random thoughts from different people. Looking through the source, compiling the IP addresses of all the comments, this user was trying to figure out what connected the people on this site. A VisualRoute traced it as far as Colorado. The HTML files appeared to be records a psychologist or similar mental health professional would keep.

The images were of faxes, apparently of both military and medical nature. As I browsed from a sub directory back to the parent, at the top of was a new HTML file named something like " The time stamp was from right that minute. I opened it, and in plain text was the message "we see you".


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No quotes, all lower-case. About 15 seconds later the server dropped. At least, that's what one Redditor says. The story :. I posted a comment on a video, and when I went back to that page to watch the video later, someone replied to my comment saying: "That is very astute of you Mr. But what about the things you can buy?

But how weird? Some users have some pretty bizarre tales Sometimes you can find the everyday things on the Dark Web.

But what makes it "illicit" is how you market it. Take this very gross example of something for sale on Silk Road:. DIY vasectomy kit on SR. A digital zoo. File photo of a rhino seen after it was dehorned in an effort to deter the poaching of one of the world's endangered species, at a farm outside Klerksdorp Thomson Reuters Sometimes you may need something specific and you have nowhere else to turn.

If that's the case watch out for a steep price tag. This Redditor explains :. A few years ago I went searching for rhino horn for a story, one guy said he had a couple of whole horns he'd sell for six figures. I had to pass.



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