Review / Books: Marked by Genius
By Christopher F. Chabris
1328 words
30 December 2005
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2005, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)


By Nancy Andreasen

(Dana Press, 225 pages, $23.95)

A LONG TIME AGO, for better or worse, I was called a genius. This diagnosis was the result of a testing session with a school psychologist when I was in elementary school. I don't recall any of it precisely, except for a vague memory of looking at some inkblots. But I do recall my parents saying later that they were advised, on the basis of my test scores, to help society out by having more children. For whatever reasons, they declined this sweet suggestion -- perhaps they knew something about me that the tests did not reveal. In any case, the world has turned out just fine with only one of me, genius or not. When I got to college, I began to study cognitive psychology myself, especially expertise and intelligence. Funny how things work out.

In the preface to "The Creating Brain," I discovered that its author had a similar experience to my own (minus the pseudo-eugenic counseling). Labeled a genius as a child, Nancy Andreasen went on to earn a doctorate and to enter a scientific career that included pioneering studies of the brain. Her laboratory at the University of Iowa was one of the first to use modern MRI technology and IQ testing methods to confirm the suspicion that more intelligent people tend to have larger brains. It follows from this fact that geniuses should have the biggest brains of all.

But the classification of people as "geniuses" based on IQ scores is mostly an act of arbitrary labeling; if anything, it might do more harm than good to imply that a test score ordains future greatness. It was a somewhat mixed blessing for Ms. Andreasen, whose parents began to hope, however modestly, that she would one day become a teacher or a nurse but worried that she might never find a suitable husband. Fortunately, she escaped this presumed perimeter of career options, got an M.D. to go along with her Ph.D., and became a leader in biological psychiatry -- all while still finding time to marry and have children of her own.

Biological psychiatrists study what goes wrong in the brain during mental illness, why such deleterious change occurs and how to correct it. Ms. Andreasen does too, but with a special interest in extraordinary creative genius. Such genius has long been associated with serious mental illness, especially schizophrenia and drug abuse: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for instance, was taking opium when he wrote "Kubla Khan," and John Nash famously became psychotic not long after making his Nobel-worthy discoveries in game theory.

In the scientific study of creativity and mental disease, Ms. Andreasen was ahead of the curve: In the 1970s and 1980s she reported on a long-running study of the visiting faculty at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, whose members included boldface literary names like John Cheever, Philip Roth and Kurt Vonnegut. By comparing 30 such individuals to equally educated people in fields that do not require artistic creativity, Ms. Andreasen showed that mental illness was indeed much more prevalent in the creative achievers. Alcoholism was the most common addiction. But surprisingly, the disorder most associated with creativity was not psychosis but depression, especially bipolar disorder (manic depression).

Psychosis is marked by extreme delusions that are thought to reflect a loosening of associations among concepts in the mind. In mild form, this condition may enhance creativity by revealing to the genius, often after unconscious, nondeliberative thought, deep links between ideas that others could not perceive. Out of control, it can result in ruminations that go more like this: I see the same person on the train every day . . . he must be following me . . . the CIA has spies that follow people . . . the CIA must be persecuting me.

Beyond the Obvious

Ms. Andreasen proposes that the creativity of loose association -- a faint shadow of psychosis, if you will, that allows some people to see one step beyond the obvious -- may be more suited to science and math than to literature. Creative writers may profit from the greater range of emotional experience that comes with large mood swings, if they can bank it and reflect on it during periods of euthymia (normal mood). She is now conducting a study of scientists, in whom she expects to find more schizophrenic traits and less mood disorder than she did in writers.

Ms. Andreasen makes a distinction between two types of creativity: ordinary and extraordinary. She devotes little attention to research on the ordinary kind, which is measured with questions like the classic "think of as many uses as you can for a brick." I sympathize with her focus on the extraordinary performers. In my own studies of chess expertise, I have always tried to recruit as subjects the best players I could find, including some grandmasters, although they are sometimes reluctant to participate. (I once arranged for a world-championship candidate to participate in several experiments. The day before the testing was to begin, he inscribed a copy of his new book to me as his "soon-to-be inquisitor." It was a telling phrase: He backed out the next day.) The difficulty of getting the time and interest of the world's best is the only reason not to study what distinguishes them from the other 99.99% of us. As Ms. Andreasen notes, if we could figure out what makes their brains so creative, we might develop ways to nurture the same abilities in others.

Of course, this could be a futile quest. Perhaps genius-level creativity results from natural gifts -- or natural curses -- inherited from our ancestors. Ms. Andreasen's writers had a surfeit of both creative relatives and mood-disordered relatives, but saying that traits run in families is no proof that they are genetic. A tradition of making music or painting, or of setting high goals and working competitively (or obsessively) toward them, can be passed down through behavior as well as DNA. Decades of careful research on twins and adopted children have established that genes account for at least part of the differences we observe in intelligence. Research on creativity is much less clear on the genetic component.

Ms. Andreasen is lucid in arguing that with creativity -- as with most human traits -- a strict opposition between nature and nurture is too simplistic. She tells the story of Leonardo and Michelangelo in Renaissance Florence, describing the social conditions that formed an ideal incubator of artistic creativity: economic prosperity, willing mentors, patronage from the Medicis and the church, and the focus on a canonical set of themes drawn from religion, such as the "Pieta" and "The Last Supper."

But the right environment requires the right talents, and vice versa, to produce genius. If Leonardo and Michelangelo had never been born, would two other apprentice artists have filled their roles instead? Probably not, but we can never know. It could even be that there were more talented children in Florence or somewhere else at the time whose gifts for drawing were ignored or never noticed.

Ms. Andreasen does not consider how chance factors, not to mention good public relations, determine whom we call a genius today. One movie, for instance, can have a huge effect on an artist's reputation: Antonio Salieri, an extremely talented composer, may never survive the drubbing he received in "Amadeus." The writer Harold Brodkey was routinely called a genius during his lifetime, even by himself, but nearly 10 years after his death hardly anyone refers to him at all.

To pay attention to only publicly "recognized" geniuses risks ignoring people with equal or greater creative talent or ability. Still, Ms. Andreasen's book describes the first steps in what should be a long and fascinating effort to understand true creative genius.


Mr. Chabris is a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.

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