Tag Archives: Schizophrenia

When creative genius and madness collide


Have you ever entered a room and been completely distracted by the noises you hear (the whir of the fans, the buzz of a projector) that you cannot concentrate? Those noises, although minute in actuality, consume all your cognitive resources and attention, and you find yourself unable to think about anything else. Say while you’re taking a test or listening to a lecturing professor. It could even happen right as you enter a room and you are adjusting to a new environment. It happens all the time, but after a brief period we habituate to these sounds and no longer notice them. Imagine what it would be like if you continued to these subtleties in your environment, no matter how long you had been there.

Research on cognitive processing from Northwestern University by Darya L. Zabelina and her colleagues published in Neuropsychologia suggests that highly creative people struggle with this. In a phenomenon known as “sensory gating”, we are able to determine how much information from our environment enters our awareness. However, the research suggests, some people have “leaky” sensory gates, so they struggle to shut out distracting information. As it turns out, this tends to be the case with creative people. Why? Research suggests a theory positing that the leaky sensory gate allows for the opportunity to perceive and then assimilate information that is less closely related, thereby producing ideas that are more creative (due to the ability to connect more distantly related concepts). A leaky sensory gate allows a person to consider more information, information that most people wouldn’t even notice. Some creative geniuses throughout history who were known to have been extremely sensitive to noise include Charles Darwin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Marcel Proust, and Anton Chekov. (Interestingly enough, all of these were notable writers in some capacity.)

However, there is a catch. It is possible that this same characteristic that produces such incredible genius may also be associated with vulnerabilities to some serious mental illnesses, especially schizophrenia. After all, reduced ability to tune out information from one’s environment (also called lateral inhibition) has been associated with schizophrenia and schizotypal personalities. So, there is a possibility that leaky sensory gating may be a common “risk factor” between psychopathy and creative achievement. It has been suggested that some people with schizophrenia may have a greater chance of making creative connections than people without schizophrenia due to their potential to perceive and integrate more information. This could be suggested of Isaac Newton, as it has been suggested that he suffered from schizophrenia. The same could be said for John Nash, a mathematical genius and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 who became the subject of the book and movie, both entitled “A Beautiful Mind” that chronicled his descent into schizophrenia before receiving treatment.

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If this is the case, then it represents a collision between creative genius and serious mental illness that has been an age-old topic of debate dating back to antiquity. This article says that the ancient Greeks considered both populations as “having been touched by the gods.”

Marijuana Use Hastens Onset of Schizophrenia

Marijuana use

Schizophrenia is one of the most well-known and perhaps the most misunderstood mental disease to the layperson. However, with the new knowledge stated in the above article and the new laws legalizing the use of Marijuana, we must understand what we may be getting ourselves into.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I am in favor of the legalization of Marijuana so long as there are other arguably worse drugs that are legal…and no, I do not partake and I’ve never had a desire to; which means I do not have a vested interest in the ultimate outcome of this policy.

When I mention Schizophrenia, most individuals I talk to bring up the movie A Beautiful Mind and bring up hallucinations. They also typically throw in the “Crazy” word at some point with the occasional “really” in front of it. While this can be true for some individuals, what is talked about less is the cognitive aspect of it all. After all, for these people THIS is their reality; it’s not just “something in the heads” to them, these things really do exist. Working in a mental health facility, I’ve witnessed what these individuals have to go through weekly.

Schizophrenia affects both males and females equally. Though it is found in all socioeconomic groups, it shows up more within the lower levels. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they start off poor, but for reasons we will discuss later, they may just end up in a worse position. Additionally, those of African descent are more likely to receive the diagnosis. The typical onset is in the early 20’s for males and later 20’s for females, though the range is between the ages of 18 and 30.

The effect on a person’s life could be dramatic based upon when they have their first episode. If a person is 17, they’re typically still in high school whereas a 30 year old is probably already done with college (unless you’re me). Those suffering from this disease find it hard to concentrate for obvious reasons and often get distracted from whatever they are doing. Their cognitive functioning is harmed because of this. An article done by Ronan O’Carroll suggested that verbal memory showed the greatest sign of impairment with these patients. Since most of education is verbal (lectures), one can only imagine how difficult it would be to get through school!

So, let’s get back to the original article which tells us that those individuals who use marijuana are likely to have their first episode about 2 years earlier than those who do not. If this is true, then the age range could potentially be 16 – 30 as typically marijuana users start in their mid to late teens. They also suggest that its use may trigger schizophrenia in those individuals that wouldn’t develop it otherwise.

As adolescence is a critical time for development within the brain. Potentially, the author suggests, the use of the drug could have an effect on the maturation of certain functions within the brain. Some may argue that 2 years is not a whole lot of time, however, 2 years of extra development could mean a lot. Two years could mean that the person has a diploma and is that much more employable and it could even mean finishing college completely!

One of the biggest complaints about the article is that the individuals who did the study did not just look at Marijuana use; in fact, the words that were used were “Alcohol” and “Other illegal drugs. They stated in the title that it was just about Marijuana. The article goes on to state that substance abusers in general were more likely to have their first symptoms 2 years earlier. This leaves a huge question within my mind about the validity to the claim that it’s Marijuana because it could potentially be any other illegal drug.

Ultimately, if these results are true for Marijuana use, the potential consequences could be devastating on an individual level. It is clear that this research needs to be refined to distinguish between the different types of drugs there are. If this holds true for Marijuana, then we must prepare for the potential consequences. For example, funding mental health hospitals to better deal with these issues, though we should be funding mental health more to begin with as it is sorely lacking and often overlooked. We must educate the populace of the potential harmful effects that this could have on younger individuals. This will not guarantee anything, of course, but it will allow individuals to make a more educated decision.