Several months ago, I began doing pieces based on Edge questions. Edge, which bills itself as an online salon, annually asks a provocative question of leading scientists and writers and the like. The answers are published as a series of books.
You can find my four previous bipolar takes to the following questions by clicking the links below:
New question …
What do we believe but cannot prove?
If I were important enough to come to the notice of the fire-breathing atheist-skeptics Richard Dawkins and Michael Shermer, they would be all over me for what I am about to write. Never mind. Here goes …
Five years ago, I polled the readers on my personal blog, Knowledge is Necessity. "How intuitive are you?" I asked. One hundred-fifty readers picked from seven possible answers and ticked off, on average, two of them.
Four in ten reported that "my thoughts and ideas seem to come out of nowhere" while more than half reported that “I often read people and situations like a book.”
So far, so good. Dawkins and Shermer would have no problem with this. Intuition and creativity, after all, confer a host of adaptive advantages. Meanwhile, the brain science is providing valuable insights into where our gut feelings and Eureka moments come from.
But then we had nearly one in four who responded that they were “borderline or full-on psychic, or at least it seems that way.”
"Imposterous!" I imagine an apoplexed Dawkins sputtering. "Illogitudinal!" a flummoxed Shermer joins in.
Okay, let’s back up a bit …
The intuition-creativity-crazy connection …
In her book, A Beautiful Mind, Sylvia Nasar reports how, back in 1959, a colleague asked the mathematician John Nash this question: “How could you believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages?”
“Because,” Nash replied, “the ideas that I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”
John Nash later received the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on games theory. He also battled schizophrenia. The schizophrenia came later, but it is clear from Nasar’s book that from the get-go Nash was occupying a brain not primed for normal.
If we take Dr Nash at his word, it seems that intuition and creativity and craziness share many of the same neural circuits. When things are working right, the brain can link disparate thoughts and observations and fuse them into mind-boggling Eureka! moments. Sometimes, it seems to do this without the aid of the conscious mind.
When things go wrong, that same brain can also convince its owner that it is the King of Antarctica.
At an American Psychiatric Association annual meeting, I heard neuropsychiatrist Nancy Andreasen bring up the example of Einstein, who she said exhibited schizotypal (schizophrenia lite) traits.
Something similar was probably going on with John Nash, prior to his brain taking a vacation from reality for the next two decades. It’s almost as if Einstein and Nash were mentally driving way over the speed limit along the same twisty roads. The difference is Einstein managed to keep his wheels on the pavement.
Perhaps, then, we can conceptualize intuition, creativity, and craziness as part of an overlapping spectrum. A lot of us have deep personal insight into this. This is the gift and curse of bipolar. Dr Andreasen has done ground-breaking research into this, and Kay Jamison popularized the notion in her 1996 book, Touched with Fire.
The missing piece …
Recall those one in four in my poll - largely a bipolar population - who owned up to having psychic tendencies. Can we fit them into our intuition-creativity-crazy spectrum? As in intuition-creativity-psychic-crazy?
You don’t necessarily have to be crazy, but a little bit of it sure helps.
Cue up Dawkins and Shermer screaming their heads off. Okay, you two. Settle down and hear me out.
Surely we can’t rule out the idea of a mental bandwidth - a certain level of awareness - that we have yet to discover. Perhaps it operates in the background and only makes itself known in times of stress. Perhaps people wired for crazy possess a certain access to it that the rest of us lack.
Perhaps this extra bandwidth represents an extension of our everyday experiences. Perhaps it opens up into a reality governed by different laws of cause and effect.
No, we don’t have the proof, but that is the very point of this exercise. Otherwise I would be writing about why I think Nikola Tesla was born on Venus, which - when you come to think of it - is the only rational explanation.
In the meantime, I have the word of that one-quarter in my poll who ticked off the “psychic” response. Can that many crazy people possibly be wrong? Call me crazy. I rest my case.