Is Genius next to Madness?

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I’ve always wondered if there is any truth that genius is next to madness.  So when I was reading an interview with Dean Keith Simonton the other day and he brought it up, I was naturally intrigued.

Simonton is one of the worlds most respected researchers into creativity in the historical record – that is, analysing historical data looking for specific, objective information.  In the interview he mentioned that among geniuses, creators tend to display higher rates of mental illness than leaders, and that depression and alcoholism are the most common illnesses.

Genius here appears to be described as ‘exceptional creativity, measured through productivity’. So, we’re talking about highly creative individuals who publish, or otherwise make public, information that can be analysed.  And you can split creative genius by discipline, for example leadership, scientific, artistic, athletic and so on.

As ever, when you look at the science the results are more complex than the simple summary statement, but I was intrigued to see that a summary statement was being made.  And goes something like this:

  • Among creative genius, creators who rely more on imagination display higher rates of mental illness than, say, leaders.  And, if you break down the kinds of creators, then artists tend to show higher rates than scientists.  Simonton summarises that “in general, the more constraints on the genius in the particular domain, the lower the rate of psychopathology.”

My interpretation looks like this…


The more concrete the concept of the creative topic, the lower the incidence of psychopathology (mental illness); the more abstract the creative topic, the higher the incidence of psychopathology.  For example, leaders show less psychopathology than creators and among creators, a scientific creative genius in Physics is less likely to show issues than a creative genius in an art like poetry.

It’s worth noting that although there does appear to be link between creative genius and ‘madness’ – there is a higher percentage of psychopathology among creative geniuses than among us regular folks – it still means that most creative geniuses are mentally well, despite how headline worthy it might be to say otherwise.

Be remarkable, and stay well!