Archive for November, 2011

Geniuses and creativity

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

What it takes to be a genius and put your mark in history? How can we account for the sudden appearance of dazzling artists and scientists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart, Shakespeare, Darwin, or Einstein? How can we define a genius? And what conditions or personality traits seem to produce exceptionally creative people in the history of humankind such as Abraham Lincoln, Vincent van Gogh, Salvador Dali, Howard Hughes, and others? Several research groups trying to understand not just the environment, life history and other personality features of famous geniuses, but also the brain of these people, have raised these questions. Famous artists, painters and people that created technologies that disrupted specific fields have strange personality and most lived isolated from society. Scientists have started to shed some light on why these historical figures are remembered in their fields. Geniuses have the ability to legate an impressive and influential body of work to future generations. However, strong creativity could be a link between genius and mental illness (Darwin was emotionally and mentally ill), high incidence of childhood trauma, especially loss of a parent, and genetic defects that are the cause of rare genetic diseases. An example is the american inventor and entrepreneur Howard Hughes. He was later diagnosed with a type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that probably explains his obsession with perfection in designing airplanes. He was also known for his strong and strange personality. There is indeed a link between geniality and insanity. For instance, Darwin was a very lonely person with psychological distress. Vincent Van Gogh was also an eccentric person and socially awkward. The history of humanity has shown that the advancement of specific fields is accompanied by geniuses that are able to do things that disrupt the “status quo” of that time. Most of these individuals have some psychological problem, and science started to show that this could be explained by genetic defects and the presence of rare genetic diseases. Some studies claim that Salvador Dali had a mental disease that could be very similar to schizophrenia. Even Albert Einstein was not very comfortable with the impact that the relativity theory could cause to society. Einstein was a very isolated person and had sparks of depression late in his career. Interesting examples from our times include personalities such as Steve Jobs, Michael Phelps and Mark Zuckerberg. Steve Jobs, the CEO and founder of Apple, was adopted early in life. Jobs was extremely obsessed with product design and perfection as a response to childhood abandonment. This was probably a way to prove to the world that even with these personal problems he would succeed. An interesting example on how a genetic defect can give advantages to the person carrying it instead of being deleterious is the case of the swimmer Michael Phelps. He was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease named Marfan Syndrome (see article “Marfan’s Syndrome: Michael Phelps’ Blessing or Curse?“) which is characterized with long limbs and a different structure of the body compared to a regular person; features that were crucial for his 8 gold medal win in the last Olympics in China. The last example is Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook. Zuckerberg was elected person of the year by the TIME Magazine and has changed the “status quo” of social media in the internet. However, some analysts and scientists believe, mainly based on the way he talks and look at cameras in interviews, that his success could be attributed to a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome. This genetic disease is in the spectrum of the diseases related to autism. The diagnosis was not confirmed yet, but Zuckerberg has several characteristics of a person with this disease. Well, to impact society and humanity with new forms of arts, technologies, theories, etc in a way that you will never be forgotten is something of a genius. The fact is that, as shown by the examples I gave, we need the “geniuses” in our society to improve fields such as arts, technology and science. If we look at the paintings from Van Gogh (illustration shown in this blog post), listen to songs from Mozart, analyze the planes that Howard Hughes designed, watch Michael Phelps swim and Zuckerberg create technologies that will impact in our society, we can conclude that humanity definitely needs a touch of a genius.