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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.

9 Comments
  1. ABE #

    Ah, the taming of the madness for useful coherent written output! The Holy Grail of writing.
    It is close to navigating whitewater while blindfolded – which is why there is so much failure associated with the endeavor.
    But the pure rush when shooting the chute and having it work can’t be bought. I save those days in the writing journal to prove they are possible, regardless of exhaustion, interruptions, and the simple knowledge – all too frequent – that the writing font is closed for the day.
    No wonder writers are willing to experiment with drugs, alcohol, and caffeine when seeking a longer run. Unfortunately, none of these are things my body will accept or work with, which is highly unfair since as an adult I am allowed an occasional Tequila Sunrise if I want one (except liver has its own opinions and won’t process it, leaving me high – and sick – for much longer than worth it).
    Mental, well yeah. So? Writing is still a legal pleasure, at least in the USA.

    July 26, 2012
    • Kate Paulk #

      Taming? I don’t even try to tame it. Just to nudge it in a direction that doesn’t lead to “hug me” coats and padded walls. Mostly it works.

      This writer doesn’t experiment with anything – my view is that my brain is untrustworthy as it is without drugs, alcohol etc. I don’t want to make it worse. I only take the prescribed pharmacopeia because I can’t function without it.

      Until they can read my mind, they aren’t going to take my biggest high away from me.

      July 26, 2012
  2. TXRed #

    I’m not so sure it is pattern recognition as much as pattern creation once the mind passes a certain point. Instead of seeing links, such as some people make with languages or geography, the mind creates links where none existed. Or even starts with only one small bit of fact or one idea and spins an entire universe out of it.

    ABE – you must have gotten your liver from the same shop where I got mine. I brought the booze back from Germany for the other exchange students (they left in late May) because they knew I would not drink it before classes resumed in September.

    July 26, 2012
    • Kate Paulk #

      It could be pattern creation, at that. I honestly don’t know where recognition stops and creation starts. I do know know humans in general and highly intelligent/creative humans in particular are very good at seeing patterns even where none exist. It’s why highly intelligent and creative people are rather prone to conspiracy theories. (And why I have to keep reminding myself that the people I’d accuse of some grand conspiracy just aren’t smart enough to do something like that and keep it hidden)

      July 26, 2012
      • TXRed #

        I’m always amused at the conspiracies that require the FBI/CIA/NSA/MI5/ Mossad/ EIEIO to be both utterly brilliant and omnipresent and at the same time completely blind and so stupid as to be incapable of leading ducks to water. 🙂

        July 26, 2012
        • Kate Paulk #

          Oh, yes. They’re quite entertaining. About as practical as udders on a bull, but entertaining.

          July 26, 2012
          • That’s why conspiracies work better if most of the conspirators have no clue that they are conspiring

            July 28, 2012
  3. MarcW #

    Late to the party, I know, but two comments:

    1) I can understand (and completely agree with) your desire not to mess with your medical regime if you’ve found one that at least enables you to function. But – and while ABSOLUTELY stipulating that narcolepsy is a physical condition – have you ever considered hypnotherapy as, if not cure, ameliorating treatment?

    I am, among the other odd accumulations of my life, a trained hypnotherapist, although I don’t practice. I have seen hypnotherapy applied with good result to patients with mild to moderate narcolepsy. (I don’t know that it wouldn’t work on severe narcolepsy: I haven’t seen it tried.) It didn’t make them not narcoleptic, but it did observably help with their symptoms, and without any additional chemical intervention.

    2) You’re absolutely right about people at extremes not being able to communicate with people in the middle of the curve. It’s taken me forty years to get to be a halfway decent communicator. I still have to actively remind myself that no, people *aren’t* being dishonest: they really and truly just don’t understand it. It is a weird way to go through life.

    October 2, 2012

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