World Science Festival: Madness Redefined

Since before the heyday of Ancient Greece, people made observational links between madness and creativity. In the last few decades, studies have given such speculations scientific credence.

Kay Redfield Jamison, co-director of Johns Hopkins Medicine’s Mood Disorders Clinic and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, discussed these studies and other issues surrounding mental illness at a World Science Festival event last night, along with James Fallon, a professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine, and Elyn Saks, a professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. Nightline anchor Cynthia McFadden moderated.

Scientists looking into the genetic component of mental illness have used family studies, including those of living and dead artists and writers, which indicate that madness or mental illness “way predates the individual artist or writer,” said Dr. Jamison.

Dr. Fallon has found a way to track mental illness in artwork, comparing spatial frequencies in artists known to be stable and those known to be mentally ill, like Van Gogh. His lab found an especially strong correlation between bipolar disorder and artistic talent.

When conducting imaging studies comparing the circuitry linked to creativity and that linked to bipolar disorder, Dr. Fallon found a “nexus between these circuits.” Highly creative people also have less active frontal lobes, which can boost original thinking but may play a role in some of the cognitive impairments, including attention problems, spatial reasoning issues, and short-term memory and concentration impairments.

About six years ago, Dr. Fallon saw a pattern in the brain scans of 35 psychopathic killers—all had minimal activity in their frontal lobes. Two years after that, Dr. Fallon and his family received brain scans as part of an Alzheimer’s study. Everyone in the family had normal activity, except for Dr. Fallon. “I thought that this [scan] had been slipped in from the pile of murderers, because it looked like about the worst case I had ever seen.”

Dr. Fallon, it turns out, had exhibited aggressive, violent, low empathy behaviors as a child, and has been hypomanic since age 18. “I’m always in a good mood. But I manipulate people—it’s a game, and I’m very competitive and everything. But I end up hurting people, and I don’t care,” he said in an upbeat manner.

Dr. Fallon has a long family history of violence—Lizzie Borden is a cousin, and he can trace serial killers in his family back to the 1600s. So why didn’t Dr. Fallon’s sociopathic tendencies lead him to become a murderer? He credits the positive environment in which he grew up.

Dr. Jamison and Dr. Saks have more turbulent personal experiences with brain disorders.

Dr. Saks experienced her first schizophrenic episode as a teenager. “I started walking home and it felt like the houses were communicating with me. They weren’t speaking, they were putting thoughts in my head.” Some years later, as a student at Oxford, she had her first official breakdown, with delusions of “having killed hundreds of thousands of people with my thoughts,” hallucinations, and disorganized thinking. She was forced into treatment in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Today, Dr. Saks’ schizophrenia is under control, in part because she no longer sees treatment as a crutch. “My neurotransmitters are broken, so I need to take the medication. Staying on it consistently has made my life much better . . . I’m more able to be productive and creative”

Dr. Jamison came from a family with a high rate of mood disorders. At 17, she experienced a devastating psychotic break “out of the blue.” She has attempted suicide and nearly died, and struggled with not taking medications. Fortunately, she has supportive family and friends and “a fantastic doctor who kept me alive when there was no reason I should have stayed alive.”

Even with high-profile people like Dr. Jamison and Dr. Saks writing and speaking about their illnesses, a huge stigma remains. “People are still scared,” and are concerned about myths and stereotypes, said Dr. Saks. “The evidence is that people with schizophrenia are much more likely to be victimized than to be victimizers.” But unfortunately, productive people living with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses are often afraid to come forward.

Stigma may prevent people from seeking treatment for what Dr. Jamison and Dr. Saks emphasized are serious, potentially deadly illnesses. “Mental illness is something that is disruptive and painful and costs the individual a lot in their lives,” said Dr. Jamison.

Dr. Saks agreed. “These are really illnesses: they cause disability, they cause pain, they cause suffering. And we should be striving to understand the illnesses, and if we can understand them and distinguish them and find treatments specific to each of them that would be a fantastic thing.”

Watch the entire event online:

–Johanna Goldberg

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