The Genius And The Nut

Embracing Disordered Brilliance

| July/August 1998

Imagine yourself, the chief curator of a futuristic museum of brains, taking a stroll through your collection.

On your left are row upon row of jars filled with the brains of the brilliant writers, artists, and composers who had bipolar disorder, a genetic illness characterized by alternating states of depression and mania. Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Cole Porter, Anne Sexton, Vincent van Gogh, Gustav Mahler, Virginia Woolf, Hermann Hesse, Mark Rothko, Mark Twain, Charles Mingus, and Georgia O'Keeffe. In a smaller bottle are fragments of Ernest Hemingway's manic-depressive brain -- all that's left after he shot a bullet through his skull.

On your right are the brains of the obsessive-compulsives, including many of the world's great scientists. You reach for the one marked 'Isaac Newton,' open it, and drag your fingers over his gray-white frontal lobes. Might there be remnants of his genius preserved in his neuronal networks -- perhaps the time he formulated the law of gravitation or studied the nature of light? Could some fossil of his hatred toward his father and mother be buried within his brain's strata like an ancient ant trapped in amber?

The brain: about three pounds of soft matter that can freeze a split second of experience forever in its cellular connections. Ten billion nerve cells are the architecture of our experience. Recent studies have shown that even human talents are reflected in the brain's structure. As just one example, consider the dendrites -- tiny branches that convey signals to nerve cells. It turns out that machinists have more dendrites in certain areas of their brains than salespeople, at least the ones less clever with their hands.

Next to Newton's jar are the brains of other prominent British scientists: William Harvey, the discoverer of blood circulation, who built dark subterranean chambers in which to think; Sir Francis Galton, a distinguished late-19th-century eugenicist, known for his pioneering studies of human intelligence, who once resolved to taste everything in the hospital pharmacy in alphabetical order. He got as far as C and swallowed some castor oil before its laxative effects put an end to his gastronomical experiments.

You open the jar marked 'Henry Cavendish' and hold his wet brain in your hands. Cavendish was a distinguished 18th-century scientist who made important discoveries in chemistry, electricity, and physics, but he was so shy that he ordered his female servants to remain out of sight or be fired. And to ensure his privacy, he developed an elaborate communication system of letter boxes and double doors in his house.

You poke your finger into his spongy, convoluted fissures. Cavendish never loved; nor was he fully human in many other ways. If a drug could have increased his love and decreased his shyness, who knows what experiments he would have failed to conduct? Instead, he could have lived his wealthy life in marital bliss in a lavish castle with little time or will to carry out demanding, exacting experiments. If Anafranil, an antidepressant that curbs obsessive-compulsive tendencies, had been available in the 1700s, would the state of modern science be retarded a hundred years? Or would pharmaceutical inhibitors have freed all these geniuses from the prison of their minds, allowing them to soar to new heights? How will future scientific development be affected when the obsessive-compulsive geniuses are eliminated from the world? Will we have made the individual happier at the expense of the planet?