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Big Costs, Massive AdvantagesDespite common belief, mental disorders can be beneficial
Kim Ji-sun  |  jisunkim@yonsei.ac.kr
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승인 2014.09.05  14:43:15
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VINCENT VAN Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain. What could these four personalities have in common? Their extraordinary artistic talents? The fact that their names all contain the letter ‘i’? Yes, but no. The similarity among the four that is worth discussing is the fact that they all possessed different types of mental disorder during their lifetime. Mental disorders have a negative reputation in our society, as they are commonly thought to cause antisocial and self-destructive behaviors. The four great figures above who had mental disorders – namely depression and bipolar disorder - were able to produce works that are so outstanding that “normal” people would probably not have been able to produce. So how could these stigmatized disorders have caused a positive consequence in these artists’ lives? How could these apparently destructive disorders be beneficial?

 

These disorders might be helpful

    Perhaps the biggest advantage some people with a mental disorder seem to have is their increased creativity. Many talented artists and scholars have suffered from mental disorders. This has made scientists inquire about the link between creativity and mental illness. John Nash, a preeminent mathematician and economist, suffered from schizophrenia, a mental disorder characterized by a lost sense of reality and abnormal social behaviors. While experiencing this illness, Nash developed game theory, an economic theory that deals with strategic decision making. Similarly, the composer Robert Schumann struggled with hypergraphia, a compulsion to write. Is this merely a coincidence that these great minds had a mental disorder, or did their illness spark a hidden talent within?  Could some mental disorders be a source of artistic creativity? Interestingly, the answer to this question may well be “yes.” J. Philippe Rushton, a renowned psychologist who has conducted many studies, especially on genetics, claimed a close tie between mental disorders and creativity. And a recent study done in Sweden at the Karolinska Institute, one of the most prestigious medical universities in Europe, suggested Rushton’s argument may be true by indicating a positive correlation between having a mental illness, bipolar disorder in particular, or having a close relative with bipolar disorder, and having a creative job.

    Bipolar disorder seems to offer a selective advantage of creativity to its patients. Geneticists believe that genes such as G72/DAOA, DISC1, NRG1, which are suspected to cause bipolar disorders, provide patients with the following advantages: the ability to connect unrelated ideas, risk-taking behaviors, high energy levels, creativity, curiosity, and social activeness. Unless the effects of such genes are maximized and become too extreme, these genes are believed to be somewhat helpful.

   Schizophrenia is another mental disorder that allows patients to be extraordinarily creative. Schizotypal individuals were found to have greater activation of their right prefrontal cortex, where divergent thinking is believed to be most highly associated. This allows such individuals to better access both hemispheres of their brains, helping them to connect the dots between somewhat unrelated ideas at a faster rate. Aristotle once argued that “no excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.” So maybe Aristotle’s famous words were partially true after all.

   In addition, other than creativity, certain types of mental disorders are known to enhance a person’s concentration too. For example, Paul W. Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist, and J. Anderson Thomson, a psychiatrist and a psychologist, through their research published in *Psychological Review*, argued that depression has important advantages despite very real costs. Depressed people have a tendency to dwell deeply on their problems without getting distracted. There is scientific evidence behind this. Neurons must fire neural impulses continuously to a specific brain region called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) in order for people to avoid being distracted. However, this is a tedious and demanding process that might cause the neurons to break down. Depression seems to affect a molecule in the brain called the 5HT1A receptor, which binds to serotonin, and supplies neurons with the fuel they need to fire and prevent them from breaking down, allowing patients to concentrate for a longer time period. Moreover, the desire for social isolation helps patients concentrate more on their own problems rather than those that social activities may provide. Vincent Van Gogh, a well-known artist who cut off his left ear while suffering from depression, but created great art works that are still acclaimed as masterpieces, is a good example of this phenomenon.

 

These disorders might be the ‘fittest’

    The existence of certain advantages that some mental disorders offer can also be explained from an evolutionary perspective. According to the Darwinian theory of natural selection, any kind of genes or traits that are detrimental must have been eliminated along the evolution of humans. Darwin’s theory of evolution states that organisms evolve over generations through a mechanism called “natural selection,” which is a process through which advantageous genes are selected to be passed down. This process passes down the genes useful for survival or for mating, thereby naturally terminating the other less useful genes. In today’s world, the genes for mental disorders still thrive within us. For instance, 80% of schizophrenia and autism are estimated to have heritability. Natural selection *selects* the useful genes, and *selects out* the less useful genes, so the fact that genes for mental disorders exist until today may be a suggestion that the advantages of mental disorders outweighed the disadvantages.

It may be too hasty to say mental disorders were favorable in evolution, though. Yang Jae-won (Prof., Dept. of Psychology) sets forth an explanation: “We cannot say mental disorders themselves have evolutionary advantages. However, the traits associated with causing the disorders may, and therefore must have been passed down in our genes until now.” According to his explanation, genes that cause anxiety would have helped humans survive throughout history and natural selection *selected* those enabling us to feel anxiety to be passed down. The gene, and the emotions associated with it, enabled our ancestors to feel fear, and consequently flee when seen or placed in a threatening situation, thereby increasing the possibility of survival. On the other hand, genes that cause anxiety disorder, a dysfunction caused by uncontrollable and excessive anxiety, would have ideally been eliminated by evolution as it does not aid humans in survival, reproduction and competition. However, as anxiety disorders are still currently present within the population, scientists can only surmise that the genes that cause anxiety and anxiety disorders may be the same, after all. In fact, almost all emotions humans have, including fear, sadness, and happiness, can be expressed through an inverse “U” graph with the depth of emotions in the x-axis, and the measure of helpfulness for survival in the y-axis. For example, too little fear causes a person to be dysfunctional, but so does too much fear: a proper amount of an emotion could be regarded as having evolutionary advantages. “Therefore, disorders could be regarded as by-products, spin-offs of evolution and survival of the fittest,” professor Yang concludes.

 

*                 *                 *

About 26.6% of the adults in the United States are known to have one or more mental disorders, according to medical statistics. Ranging from anxiety disorder to bipolar disorders, mental disorders are actually quite common within our population. Mental disorders that are often views as wholly negative could actually be advantageous. It is time for us to update our misconceptions, and view mental disorders in a less-skewed light.

 

Box:

·         Drama: It’s Okay, That’s Love

A recent SBS drama starring Cho In-sung and Kong Hyo-jin. This drama depicts a love story between a psychiatrist and a well-known writer who secretly suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

·         Book: Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason

The hugely influential French philosopher Michel Foucault argues that ‘insanity’ is nothing but a term that the ‘normal’ have come up with to prove their normality. A controversial and thought-provoking book.

·         Movie: Beautiful Mind

 

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