Elyn Saks’ private demons
The photo is Oxford scholar, Yale law student, and USC legal professor Elyn Saks, who revealed in her memoir some of the “horrors and demons of schizophrenia,” as described in the article A secret life of madness, by John M. Glionna (Los Angeles Times), who writes that “she wrestled with uncouth visions, violent commands and suicidal impulses..
“In her worst moments, the TV made fun of her, ashtrays danced and walls collapsed. She believed she was single-handedly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. The brains of close associates were taken over by aliens.”
A common gene
A National Institute of Mental Health study last year found “Most people inherit a version of a gene that optimizes their brain’s thinking circuitry, yet also appears to increase risk for schizophrenia.
“Three fourths of subjects studied had at least one copy of the [gene] version that results in more efficient filtering of information processed by the brain’s executive hub, the prefrontal cortex.
“However, the same version was also more prevalent among people who developed schizophrenia, a severe mental illness marked by delusions, hallucinations and impaired emotion that affects one percent of the population.”
An excess of patterns
In his Frontal Cortex blog post about this study, “Intelligence and Insanity,” Jonah Lehrer [author of Proust Was A Neuroscientist] comments, “This actually makes sense. The human brain is a pattern-making machine. We imagine causality and see intentionality everywhere. Schizophrenics suffer from an excess of patterns. (A delusion is just the perception of a pattern that doesn’t actually exist.) So it’s entirely plausible that the same gene that endows with us the machinery to detect patterns (this involves the prefrontal cortex) is also involved with the machinery underlying madness.”
Lehrer also quotes G.K. Chesterton: “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”
Schizotypal personalities and creativity
According to a related news article, “New research on individuals with schizotypal personalities – people characterized by odd behavior and language but who are not psychotic or schizophrenic – offers the first neurological evidence that they are more creative than either normal or fully schizophrenic individuals, and rely more heavily on the right sides of their brains than the general population to access their creativity.
“Psychologists believe that a number of famous creative luminaries, including Vincent Van Gogh, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson and Isaac Newton, had schizotypal personalities.”
Fortunately, schizophrenia can be managed far more effectively now.
Oliver Sacks, M.D. (author of Awakenings and Musicophilia) has written that Elyn Saks’ memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey through Madness, “showed how, with medication, sensitive support (and, in Professor Saks’s case, psychoanalysis), a deeply schizophrenic person can achieve a life full of creative work and love and friendships.”