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RS99 - Judith Schlesinger Exposes the Myth of the Mad Genius

Release date: December 22, 2013

Judith SchlesingerCreative geniuses are always a little bit cuckoo, right? At least, that's the impression you'd get from TV, movies, and plenty of common wisdom. In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Massimo and Julia are joined by psychologist Judith Schlesinger, author of The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius, who explains why she thinks the "mad genius" archetype is simply the result of folklore, misunderstanding, and bad research.

Judith's advice: Re-enjoy the geniuses that you have always loved, pull down a Beethoven Symphony and listen to it, go to the museum and look at Van Gogh's beautiful paintings, and if you focus more on the beauty and less on the rumor, we will all be better off.


Reader Comments (18)

Is she a mental illness denier or what? Does she also think that autistic kids are just brats who need more discipline?

December 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Max: I suspect that if you actually listen to the interview, your questions will be answered quite clearly (in the negative).

(And yes, I've listened to the podcast)

December 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Lynchehaun

It seems like after reviewing the relevant literature, Schlessinger found that a correlation between madness and genius is indeterminate, but not that it's false. But it seems like she wants to make the stronger claim that this theory is a myth that should be rejected outright, rather than a question deserving of further research--she seems pretty uninterested in even thinking about how to empirically test whether a relationship exists.

December 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBen


"It seems like after reviewing the relevant literature, Schlessinger found that a correlation between madness and genius is indeterminate, but not that it's false"

If you mean that "she reviewed the relevant literature and found that the claim of this connection was entirely without support", then sure, I guess that's one way to read what she did.

But hey, if you want to go research the (so far) entirely baseless claim that there is a strong correlation between these two things: go ahead. Seems weird that you write as if she has some obligation to go demonstrate a failed hypothesis...

December 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Lynchehaun

What an offensively stupid guest Schlesinger was. Does she have any genuine interest in what she's talking about?

Van Gogh: He didn't cut off his ear nor commit suicide because she read that somewhere?

Put it aside. Here is a fact. He produced 187 densely-worked observational paintings from February 1888 - May 1889. That kind of output would be *impossible* outside a sustained manic episode. I'm a professional artist who has worked in this same style (en plein air, premier coup), and can say anyone who could produce half that many paintings, in that time frame, would be extraordinary – regardless if the paintings were any good. Van Gogh produced, on average, a museum-worthy painting every 58 hours.

When athletes exhibit super-human performance, they get found guilting of taking steroids.

More bullshit: The Iowa Workshop is NOT a place where burnt-out writers go. It's an artist residency. Does she know what a residency is? Artist residencies are places where artists go to work without distraction. It's an honor to be accepted to one, and the Iowa Workshop is the most prestigious residency in the United States. Does she even know a single fiction writer?

The study including Churchill and disparate "creative people": She finds the sample invalid but the result – no correlation – valid. Brilliant.

Deriding a study composed of white male artists: This may be news to her, but artists generally come from affluent backgrounds. You are not going to get in any sample group inner-city African-American sculptors. It's perfectly fine to draw *appropriate* inferences from the sample you *do* have.

Jamison's work: Schlesinger created a strawman to knock down and insult. I've read two of Jamison's books (and will not be reading Schlesinger's).

Julia: "Did you ask for the questions?"
Schlesinger: "No, that was back in 1987." Nice research.

Sloppy thinking: She can't decide if categories and terms for mental illness are meaningful enough to be wrong, yet she proceeds to say they're wrong anyway. She scoffs that some studies fashioned their own criterion for depression *and* the fact that general categories aren't precise enough. Well, that's why studies fashion their own criterion.

I'll shut up there. What an obnoxious half-wit Ms. Schelinger is.

December 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Brian - thanks for the response.

Granting that Schessinger's analysis is complete and accurate, I'd agree that the claim "madness is correlated to genius" is baseless. But the claim "madness is uncorrelated to genius" is also baseless, no? The proper research has not been done, so we don't know whether there's a correlation or not. I wouldn't call either of them failed hypotheses, because neither has been shown to be false, but rather untested ones.

As a result, I'd want to take an agnostic view until better research is available. But Schlessinger seems to want to do something different, which is to accept the baseless no correlation hypothesis, and I don't understand why.

December 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBen

"But the claim "madness is uncorrelated to genius" is also baseless, no?"

You keep misstating the original claim.

The original claim is that "madness and genius are two sides of the same coin". Not that they are *merely* correlated, but that the one is inextricably tied to the other.

If the "best" studies don't show that they are strongly correlated, then they're not strongly correlated, and the onus is on those putting forward the 'inextricably linked' claim to support it. As it is, there are plenty of artists (of all stripes) in the world who get by without suffering from any kind of mental illness (at least, not above the base rates for society).

December 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Lynchehaun

"Not that they are *merely* correlated, but that the one is inextricably tied to the other."

If that's the claim Schlessinger wants to debunk, she doesn't need to explore any research; she just needs to find one example of a non-mad genius, which isn't difficult.

"If the "best" studies don't show that they are strongly correlated, then they're not strongly correlated."

Pretty sure this doesn't follow.

December 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBen

"Pretty sure this doesn't follow."

Yup, it does, but your link doesn't. An Appeal to Ignorance is an informal fallacy, merely claiming that an Appeal to Ignorance has been made is (frankly) sophomoric. An exemplar of when this fallacy breaks down: the claim that my keys are in my pockets. My pockets are completed turned out, thus demonstrating that there are, in fact, no keys in my pockets. The Appeal to Ignorance can still be claimed here, but claims aren't facts...

An appropriate counter would be that the *initial* studies have all been terrible, but it's possible to have well-designed studies testing this question. A response to which is that it doesn't appear that artists experience mental illness at significantly higher rates than the general population. Feel free to spend some time googling this to assure yourself.

Don't be this guy:

December 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Lynchehaun

Brian -

If you have two variables whose relationship has not been studied, is your default assumption that the variables are unrelated, or that that they may or may not be related? If someone then studies the two variables and finds a relationship, but the study's methodology is severely flawed, how do you adjust your view about the two variables?

January 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBen

Ms. Schlesinger seems to be offended by the possibility of a link between creativity and mental illness, to the detriment of her objectivity.

It it is easy to see how a specific condition, like mania, that increases a person's energy, motivation and confidence, and enables lateral thinking, might be over-reprenseted among successful creative people. Another disorder, schizotypy, also seems to promote loose conceptual thought and the synthesis of new ideas. Interestingtly these are known to be linked biologically by elevated levels of dopamine.

A recently concluded 40-year study of roughly 1.2 million Swedish people provides partial support to BOTH sides of the debate:

They "found that with the exception of bi-polar disorder, those in scientific and artistic occupations were not more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders. So full-blown mental illness did not increase the probability of entering a creative profession (even the exception, bi-polar disorder, showed only a small effect of 8%).

What was striking, however, was that the siblings of patients with autism and the first-degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia nervosa were significantly overrepresented in creative professions."

A good survey of the literature can be found here:

January 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshM

With regard to the question of why we should care about whether or not there really is a link between creativity and mental illness:

"According to Simon Kyaga, Consultant in psychiatry and Doctoral Student at the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, the results give cause to reconsider approaches to mental illness.

"If one takes the view that certain phenomena associated with the patient's illness are beneficial, it opens the way for a new approach to treatment," he says. "In that case, the doctor and patient must come to an agreement on what is to be treated, and at what cost."

This issue frequently arises in the treatment of bipolar disorder. The cartoonist Ellen Forney has produced an eloquent graphic novel about what it is like to be "flagrantly manic and terrified that medications would cause her to lose creativity and her livelihood," and the "years-long struggle to find mental stability while retaining her passion and creativity."

It's not a merely academic question for those who must wrestle with these choices in their own lives.

January 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshM

"It's not a merely academic question for those who must wrestle with these choices in their own lives."

As an artist with Bipolar 2 struggling to maintain stability, I can confirm this. Depression often prevents me for working, which prevents me from making money, which means I am on assistance programs such as Glaxo-Smith's that gives me medication for free. I take three meds just to stay afloat, but when I am above water, I appreciate some of the byproduct I think comes from bipolar, such as various disinhibitions that facilitate creative thought and what Keats called "negative capability." For artists with bipolar who experience more manic episodes than depressive ones, it's understandable why they'd resist medication.

In any case, why is the exception of 8% of people with bipolar small?

January 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRob

It's not so much mental illness causes creativity, rather, psychiatrists tend to diagnose creative people with mental illness, namely Bipolar disorder. What is creativity? What does it look like? The dictionary isn't much help because, In my dictionary, "creative" means imaginative. So, I looked up "imaginative" and it said "to be creative." Besides, It's easy to just point to someone like Albert Einstein and say such and such is very creative and not insane, but that doesn't tell me what creativity is; that is just giving examples.

January 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Lee

Just 2 comments which come to mind :

The factual mind is the tool of an academic intellect. Its sole purpose is the simplification, codification, and facilitation of the accumulation and assimilation of information. The creative mind is the tool of admiration for all of that. . . and more.

But sadly. . . Creativity disturbs the status quo and is therefore the first element of primary and secondary education which is eliminated when funds are “scarce”.

April 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBernard Poulin
Judith Schlesinger have not done her own official research. But others have.
March 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSimona Andersson
It's fascinating how today we would rather pooh-pooh scientific analysis based on fact and due diligence than question the romanticism that has led us to believe in fantasies. Possibly, it is because we now associate, if not downright consider, "reality TV" to be real.
March 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBernard Poulin
So if I have a lot of neurotic thoughts, can I also start to consider myself a creative genius? It seems the general neuroticism of artists confuses any diagnosis of a more severe mental illness. It also seems like we have an entire cadre of researchers who want to romanticize mental illness by associating it with artistic genius, and that perhaps some of these researchers suffer from mental illness themselves.

I wonder if I start describing myself as a "mad genius" and acting crazy, will more people buy my art, and pay more for it?

P.S. I'm not the "Jameson" mentioned in this episode.
January 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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