Living the edges
Blame Sarah. Her post yesterday started me thinking on this line, and anything that gets me thinking moderately philosophical thoughts is dangerous.
Anyway, as Sarah said yesterday, madness and creativity are pretty closely intertwined. Very few highly creative types don’t argue with some form of mental illness, and frankly, once the intelligence levels get high enough, the same kind of thing happens. Our species seems to be built to design specs with a caveat in big flaming letters “Extremes are Bad Things” (Yes, evolution will in fact do this. Extreme anything is bad. Moderation in all things, including moderation, appears to be the way to go). At any rate, moving too far from the averages, whether creativity-wise or in terms of intelligence, almost always introduces a bunch of negative effects.
There’s a “sweet spot” in the order of about 1 to 2 statistical deviations above the norm. In that range, whatever it is is good enough to help the fortunate possessor without introducing much in the way of nasty side effects. In the realm of intelligence, this is where the people ordinary joes consider bright are found. Beyond that a person gets to be in a realm where they can’t understand normal people, and no-one outside their very small group of mental peers can understand them. With creativity it tends to be even more marked – mildly more creative than usual often looks a lot more impressive than extremely more than usual because at the extreme there’s not much there an average person can recognize. This is why stunningly new things usually take a long time to get adopted. They’ve got to trickle down through the not-quite-so-extremely-creative to be translated into something that the not-particularly-creative can relate to.
When the ability is so strongly linked to insanity, well, that just makes it even more interesting.
My personal theory – I’m fairly sure I’ve mentioned it here in the past (yeah, says the inner editor, like once or twice a week. The inner editor is a demon, and lies.) – is that the essence of creativity is in pattern recognition and generalization. The more someone can observe patterns across fields of thought or practice that rarely intersect, the more creative their observations are going to be. When the patterns and fields of thought pillage mythology, legend, and every work of fiction ever, that’s a heck of a lot of ground to cover. Take someone who doesn’t have the normal “this is socially acceptable” filters (I’m intimately familiar with this), and you’ll get high-octane nightmare fuel played for laughs (a.k.a. the con vampire books). Add that to a subconscious that actively collects all of this and then spits out the shiny “Ooh! Story!”, and you get what Sarah described with A Few Good Men (which is totally worth any amount of money you choose to spend on it. Just saying).
It’s fragile, to say the least. In my case the wrong choice of music can shut me down for days. Of course, if I get a nasty shock, I can tip straight back to suicidal, so I don’t count myself as particularly stable anyway. Of the several flavors of antidepressant I’ve taken, I’ve only found one that leaves the writing ability more or less intact. Not surprisingly, I’m not that keen to experiment any further. I’m not aware of antihistamines shutting me down, although any form of physical illness does a number on me, so it may simply be that the effect is masked by not being well enough to think.
Of course, being narcoleptic, I’ve got the advantage of very vivid dreams, including some that happen without me needing to actually be asleep. Those are usually the trippiest, probably because I experience them direct, without any kind of “remembering the dream” filters. The flip side is that the medication for that takes me from permanently functioning as if I’ve just come off a 48 hour shift to functioning as if I’ve just come off an all-nighter. I don’t actually remember what “awake” feels like. Curiously enough, I describe exhaustion rather well…
In my view, it’s all input towards whatever the next story happens to involve. Or the one after that. Whatever works.
I think that’s possibly where all the research on creativity, intelligence, and mental illness has gaps: the focus tends to be on the ones who can’t keep their grip on the world their body lives in. The ones who figure out what works for them and can keep hold of the physical world when the worlds of the mind are calling so seductively mostly manage to slide past under the social radar. Most of us prefer it that way.
Of course, most of us would also deny the hell out of any evidence we were losing our grip. And therein lies its own set of nightmare fuel.