The notion of a “tortured genius” or “mad scientist” may be more than a romantic aberration. Research shows that bipolar disorder and schizophrenia correlate with high creativity and intelligence, raising tantalizing questions: What role does environment play in the path to mental illness? Are so-called mental defects being positively selected for in the gene pool? Where’s the line between gift and deficit? As studies mount supporting the storied link between special aptitudes and mental illnesses, science is reexamining the shifting spectrum between brilliance and madness.
This program is part of The Big Idea Series, made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation.
Cynthia McFadden is the senior legal and investigative correspondent for NBC News. Before joining NBC News, she co-anchored Nightline at ABC News. She has won Emmy, Peabody, and duPont awards, among others, and interviewed a number of world leaders, including the presidents of the United States, Pakistan, Rwanda and Chile. She has reported from a wide variety of international hot spots, including Haiti, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Bosnia, El Salvador, Rwanda, South Africa, Pakistan, India, Russia and China. A native of Maine, McFadden graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude from Bowdoin College, and received her law degree from Columbia University.
Internationally renowned neurobiologist James Fallon has made major scientific breakthroughs in the basic and clinical brain sciences. He was the first to describe a characterized growth factor in the central nervous system, the first to show how to stimulate the mass production and mobilization of adult stem cells in the adult brain, to provide the pioneering analyses of the dopamine and endorphin systems and their circuits throughout the brain, and to uncover the fundamental organization of the mammalian forebrain. Fallon was the neuroanatomist on the team that The New York Times called “the most startling discovery during the Decade of the Brain.” His recent imaging genetics research has discovered new genes for Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. Most recently Fallon has lectured worldwide on neurolaw and the brains of psychopathic killers and dictators. Through a series of chance and serendipitous events, this led to a disturbing revelation in his own family, and in his own life.
Fallon is professor emeritus of anatomy and neurobiology and professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California, Irvine’s School of Medicine.
Kay Redfield Jamison has been called a “hero of medicine” for turning her own struggle with manic-depression into a lifelong career researching the illness and its treatment. Her unique perspective as both a psychologist and a patient helped her become a world-renowned expert on mental illness and suicide; in 1990, she co-wrote what is still the standard medical textbook on manic-depressive (or bipolar) illness, which the American Association of Publishers chose as the most outstanding book on biomedical sciences that year. Jamison’s work has been recognized with a MacArthur Foundation “genius” Award, among dozens of other honors.
Jamison is the Dalio Family Professor in Mood Disorders and Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where she studies mental illness and its relationship to creativity and temperament. She is also Honorary Professor of English at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. An Unquiet Mind, her bestselling memoir about her experiences with manic-depressive illness and medication, has been translated into 25 languages since its publication in 1995, and Nothing Was the Same, her 2009 memoir about the loss of her husband, was named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
One of the strongest, most expressive voices to have come out of Ireland belongs to Dublin native Susan McKeown. Her 2010 album Singing in the Dark explores creativity and madness with lyrics from poets such as Anne Sexton and Theodore Roethke, who were writing through the lens of depression, mania and addiction. Based in New York since 1990, McKeown’s powerful pipes and adventurous musical spirit marked her as a distinctive talent upon the release of her debut album Bones in 1995. The Grammy-winning vocalist and BBC Folk Award nominee has gone on to record thirteen more albums spanning the realms of world music and rock. She also conceived and produced Songs from the East Village, a world music album for families, which was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition. McKeown has performed throughout Europe and North America with artists such as Pete Seeger, Natalie Merchant, Billy Bragg and The Klezmatics.
With the poet Paul Muldoon, McKeown is artistic director of Feis Teamhra, an annual festival of poetry and music at the ancient site of Tara in Ireland. She also curates SongLives, a songwriter series at New York’s Irish Arts Center.
Elyn Saks’ work focuses on the legal and ethical issues surrounding mental illness—something she has decades of personal experience with. When Saks was diagnosed with schizophrenia more than thirty years ago, she was given a “very poor” prognosis—her doctors didn’t expect she would be able to live independently, let alone work. Intensive psychoanalytic psychotherapy and drug therapy, together with supportive family and friends and an accommodating workplace, have enabled Saks to defy that prognosis.
Saks teaches at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, where she is Orrin B. Evans Professor of Law, Psychology and Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences. She has researched and written extensively about law and psychiatry, the ethics of psychiatric research and patients who refuse treatment. In 2009, Saks received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. She used the grant money to found an interdisciplinary research program on mental health with the goals of influencing policy-making and advocating for improved treatment of people with mental illness.
Saks has written several books, and her 2007 memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, was a New York Times bestseller and a TIME Top Ten Nonfiction Book of the Year.