The Independent writes:
[W]hat, if anything, could possibly link minds that gave the world the theory of relativity, great surreal art, iconic comedy, and songs about surfing?Wise research, I suppose, to have discovered a fact that any slight student of archaeology or anthropology could have told them. Madness is not only adaptive but widely sought by those societies living at lower levels of technology, whose lives are more keenly balanced between survival and destruction. It is the rare society that did not have some form of mystical vision-seeking, based on suffering or drugs designed to take the mind out of its normal function.
According to new research, psychosis could be the answer.... "There is now a feeling that these traits have survived because they have some adaptive value. To be mildly manic depressive or mildly schizophrenic brings a flexibility of thought, an openness, and risk-taking behaviour, which does have some adaptive value in creativity. The price paid for having those traits is that some will have mental illness."
Research is providing support for the idea that creative people are more likely to have traits associated with mental illness. One study found that the incidence of mood disorders, suicide and institutionalisation to be 20 times higher among major British and Irish poets in the 200 years up to 1800. Other studies have shown that psychiatric patients perform better in tests of abstract thinking.
In the West, this took the form of the cults that used ergot beverages, which have been discovered sealed in jars of the greatest antiquity.
A mild madness is merely a way of seeing reality differently. Give a man an alphanumeric string to remember: 24E7Y21P93Q. Then give him a word of the same length: BACCHANALIA. The mind can hold the one only with care and repeated effort: the other it seizes at once.
For a mild autistic, however, the two things may be equally easy to remember. That means that, if we could control that particular form of madness, we could access that function when we needed it. There is really no reason the one set of data should be easier to remember than the other; it is just the way the brain normally works. The brain could work otherwise. What is wanted is the ability to control it, and apply the talent we need.
Likewise, other forms of madness may drop walls to perception. Sometimes these walls are very useful: it can be helpful not to realize how dangerous it is, for example, to drive a car. Dropping that particular wall, as happens sometimes to those who suffer severe car wrecks, can be disabling in normal life. It is best that we can't normally understand just how perilous it is to push a heavy piece of metal to a speed of sixty miles an hour. Yet there may be times when such perceptions are useful, if they can be had for a while. If you could show your teenage son a vision of the thing for just a moment, it might save many a fine young life.
Creativity and madness are surely linked. That means there is a price: if we have bred to have a certain number of Einsteins, we have also bred to have a certain number of gibbering madmen who suffer and can not help themselves. More control is needed, which perhaps will come with greater understanding of the physical mechanisms of the brain.
Models based on an assumption that "normality" is a goal to be striven for, however, are not helpful. What is wanted is not a "normal" mind. What is wanted is the right mind, at the right moment.