The madness of history

How our perception of creativity and disorder changes over time: it’s worth talking about

PUTNEY — Lately, I've been preoccupied with two things: researching the literature regarding the relationship between creativity and psychological disorders like attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder and wondering, as I watch the current political campaign, why so much of our national political discourse seems tinged with madness.

My interest isn't random. I teach courses in creative writing for bright college students with diagnosed learning disorders, and I also teach journalism and try to help my students make sense of the news.

As a poet, I think a lot about the nature of creativity and how it intersects with other aspects of our personalities.

As a student of history, I am struck by how completely crazy some of the things that were common practices in past ages now seem to us, and I wonder how our current age will seem to those who come after us.

The civil culture that gave us Virgil and Cicero, and that organized much of Europe and the Middle East into a great empire, entertained its citizens in huge stadiums in which animals and men were set to tear one another to the death for the entertainment of the crowd.

For a period of several centuries, the religious tradition that ruled over Europe, and that in its modern variants has been proposed as a state religion in the United States, tortured heretics and witches and burned them at the stake.

In the great shining exemplar of the enlightenment and the new rights of man, the founding of the United States, African-American slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportionment of representatives, men without property could not vote, and women were prevented from having the franchise until 1920. It was not really possible for a black person to vote in most southern states until the 1960s.

This all seems mad to us now, in the retrospect that history provides.

What will seem mad to us in our current reality when it becomes history, 10 years from now? Or 20? Or 50?

When I look at the empirical research into creativity and conditions that we term “psychological disorders,” I wonder the same thing.

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Creative artists and scientists create new meaning, bring new windows into reality and truth, and help us, through their insights, stories, poems, and art, to make sense of our lives. The scientific research indicates that these individuals often share at least part of a common psychological make-up with those who suffer from psychological disorders like ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, and substance abuse.

Out of eight American winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, five were alcoholics. Many of the greatest American poets of the middle part of the last century - Lowell, Plath, Bishop, Jarrell, Berryman, Sexton, Schwartz, Roethke - suffered from alcoholism and/or bipolar disorder.

Arguably the greatest contemporary fiction writer, David Foster Wallace, killed himself a couple of years ago. So did Ernest Hemingway, the last writer of serious literature who was broadly popular and well-known. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who probably had ADHD, drank himself to death before he turned 50. Berryman, Plath, Sexton, and Jarrell all committed suicide, too.

In terms of my particular interest, ADHD, the research indicates that the same deficit in something called “latent inhibition” - the ability to inhibit response to internal thoughts or external stimuli - that causes so much difficulty in contexts where convergent thinking is required, like school, is also the reason that people with ADHD are generally better at creative thinking than people without.

Similar research suggests other psychological links between negative symptoms and positive gains for creativity, such as a tendency toward “flat associational thinking” among individuals with bipolar disorder: the ability to make multiple associations in relation to a single stimulus or thought, as opposed to more convergent thinking among neurotypical individuals.

The research in this area is relatively small. It's not a funding priority for the industry that focuses on psychological differences and maladies. But it is legitimate, empirical, and suggestive.

There is no suggestion in it that we should ignore the terrible consequences that different psychological problems cause. But the connection between creativity and madness, which Plato first noticed, seems like something worth talking about.

It seems that the problem might be, at least in part, that the cognitive function meant to channel internal thoughts and feelings while keeping the mind from being overwhelmed by incoming stimuli is weaker in those who have creative gifts.

Perhaps it is also the case that the mind cannot bear too much reality. James Joyce, who might be the most important novelist of the last century, wrote that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” If you've ever tried to wade through Finnegans Wake, then you know what he meant.

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So what does this have to do with history? I think the answer starts with the question of what we have come to accept as normal.

It seems normal to us that we have accepted that we have fought two decade-long wars, with enormous cost to an economy that had already been made dysfunctional by tax cuts and changes in financial regulations.

The truly incalculable cost has come in loss and damage to human lives - the lives of some of our best young people - with no positive gain by any pragmatic calculation, and a great social reckoning still to come.

It seems normal that the origin of the policies and machinations that have created an economic disaster second only to the Great Depression should have been largely forgotten, so that the president who was left to clean up this terrible mess is now tagged with failure while his opponent runs on the same policy framework that got us into our current state.

It seems normal that we are so deeply addicted to the automobile that it is all but impossible to live nearly anywhere in America without driving a car - a method of transport that is terribly inefficient in terms of cost to the individual and deeply harmful to the globe in terms of climate change and geopolitical conflict.

It seems normal that we put people into prison because they use or sell recreational drugs, creating one of the largest percentages of incarcerated citizens in the world, even as it seems normal to us that the most dangerous drug of all, alcohol - the only easily available drug that causes complete blackouts, and the cause of more deaths among young people than anything else - sponsors most televised athletic events and is one of the greatest sources of advertising revenue for media outlets, especially network television.

Getting drunk in college is something of a cultural ethos. The joke runs that “I'm not an alcoholic until I graduate.” You could say that our national college graduation rate - something less than 50 percent - is sponsored by Budweiser.

It seems normal to us that, during the period since the 1960s, psychiatry has risen to prominence and pharmaceutical companies have promised new cures for old maladies, the number of individuals with various mental illnesses has increased almost exponentially.

The proposal that the new revision of the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual would treat normal bereavement at the loss of a loved one as a psychiatric condition treatable by antidepressants was ultimately rejected, but you can see the drift of their thinking.

It seems normal to us that almost half of registered Republican voters report that they believe that the President of the United States is a Muslim or not an American citizen.

It seems normal to us that 400 individuals in the United States control the same amount of wealth as the lowest 40 percent of Americans. If you put the annual income of someone in the top 10 percent of wealth in the country - a group to which I almost belong - into a stack of $100 bills, it would measure an inch and a half.

If you put the wealth of one of the top 400 into the same stack of bills, it would be about the length of the Putney Road strip. Some of the top 20 or so would have a stack as tall as Mt. Everest.

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Obviously, I don't mean that this state of affairs seems normal to you and me. I'm not saying that all who look at these realities think that they make sense, and I certainly don't mean to understate the hard work so many people are doing to oppose these trends.

Still, if I look at American society as a whole and think of it as a “we” to which I belong, it is impossible not to say that in some fashion we accept these realities as a given.

And certainly, from the standpoint of a history that I probably won't live to see, but that I hope my daughters will, our current reality will come to be seen from this future as irrational as any prior period of history that we look at now.

It seems possible that if our global civilization survives, someday many years from now the practice of medicating individuals with some psychoactive drugs while outlawing other psychoactive drugs and allowing the active promotion of drinking alcohol as a cultural norm will be written up in the same chapter of textbooks of medical history that discuss bleeding, phrenology, and the four humours.

This point brings me back to where I began, with the connection between creativity and psychological disorders.

As a student in the 1970s I read R.D. Laing on madness and society, Thomas Szasz on the myth of mental illness, and Freud on the universal neurosis of humankind. These thinkers have largely been discarded, but I wonder whether it is time to bring back their vein of thought.

The main idea was that the nature of reality - the environment - partly or mainly contributed to mental illness, and also that humans were intrinsically challenged psychologically, driven by unconscious forces in a way that created a dysfunctional cultural environment that in turn fostered and contributed to psychological abnormality in a neverending cycle.

In essence, this vein of thought raised the question of what it means to be sane within the context of an insane reality. What constitutes “normal” when the context is irrational?

The rise of various forms of scientific investigation displaced this conceptual framework, instead locating individual mental disorders in genetic heritage and the neurochemistry of the brain. It also brought us a huge enterprise of pharmacological cures.

I'm not disputing this science, which seems accurate in its way, except to say that its explanation for the madness that surrounds us and the maladies of our psyches has proven only partial at best, and the cures that have been offered seem to fall short.

It's hard to see the lever to change the insane reality that we accept as normal. I threw my lot in with education 25 years ago, and I guess I'll be working on that angle for some time to come.

Perhaps one place to start is to begin seeing that our definition of what is normal is the problem.

Perhaps another is to stop trying to fit those who deviate from the norm into the tight boxes in which we seek to confine them.

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