Gifted and mentally ill: A link between intellectual functioning and schizophrenia

Elyn SaksElyn 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.”

From article Common gene version optimizes thinking — but with a possible downside.

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.”

From Odd Behavior And Creativity May Go Hand-in-hand.

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.”


Originally posted 2008-02-25 22:56:58.


  1. Marcia Szymanel says

    Interesting thought, fear and creativity. I know my reading and writing has always been one of my most creative outlets,and writing was discussed with me by many of my professors. Told should pursue, not teach. At least look into lit degree. Blank page does create fear as one begins process of beginning ‘story’ and triggering impulses to put all that is going on in your head into what becomes touchable and real. So important, and intimate. Reveal so much of self, and in that alone, leave yourself open for what? Will be all that you hold, or a jumble that someone else comes up against. Never had that happen, but that feeling of being found out, that the ‘real’ you isn’t what is seen. Those of us with these issues are more perceptive to others’ responses, and take in facial, vocal and body language in a way that I truly believe many do not. Just a thought. So much power and healing in paper and pencil, but it takes courage to share and create. Also that taking in leaves us in a difficult state, for us and others to understand. Is probably more difficult for others many times than us.


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