The Uses of Madness

van-gogh-460_1441693cWhen I was in grade school, my ironclad bedtime routine included setting out the next day’s clothing. I didn’t fold the clothes, but laid them carefully on the floor exactly as I would put them on: pants next to socks, socks next to shoes, and so on.  An unsuspecting passer-by would assume either 1) a small child had suddenly evaporated; 2) I was maybe a bit obsessive/compulsive.

The link between talent and neural disorders is fascinating. The list of world-class performers who have been diagnosed as bipolar, obsessive-compulsive, or autistic is staggeringly long: Hemingway, John Nash, Nijinsky, Van Gogh, Faulkner, Orwell, Nabokov, and Glenn Gould, to name a tiny handful.

We usually think of this link in poetical terms. According to this way of thinking, certain people are gifted with an innate superpower (genius) that carries a terrible price (madness).

This view is tempting. The only problem: it’s not true. Almost nobody – including the crew listed above – has been found to be exempt from the rule of 10,000 hours. Even savants, according to Dr. Michael Howe in his insightful book, Genius Explained, achieve their skill through intense practice. They aren’t different; they are simply better at doing what we’re all trying to do: to focus, to practice deeply, and to build superfast neural circuitry.


  • OCD creates precise repetitions and elaborately organized behavior.
  • Autism creates focus, sensitivity to detail, and repetitions.
  • Manic-depression creates periods of high energy.

All of these processes are key elements of the skill-building process – which is all about repeating, making connections, and which requires large amounts of energy. (Perhaps that’s why these disorders exist; after all, if they had no benefit, why would evolution have selected for these traits?)

Which leads us to an interesting idea: what if geniuses aren’t geniuses because of innate ability, but rather because of the way their disorders equip them for highly motivated practice? I don’t want to be flip here – I’m not saying it’s an advantage to be depressed or autistic. And surely there are some rare synesthesic savants like Daniel Tammet who are wired differently from birth.

But I’d like to suggest that for most of us, the connection between genius and neural disorders holds two lessons.

  1. The majority of geniuses are building their brains using the same tools as the rest of us.
  2. We should align our talents with our disorders. Seeing as many of us possess mild, garden-variety versions of neural disorders, we should funnel those behaviors toward the practice that will grow the skills we desire.

When I think about my own life, I can see how I’ve done this almost unconsciously. While I no longer lay out my clothes the night before, I do have a ridiculously baroque system for organizing my notes. It’s obsessive, to be sure, but it works pretty well when it comes to capturing and arranging  ideas for a book or an article. (My sock drawer? Don’t get me started.)