The Intertwining of Genius and Insanity


By Omar Cherif
The Intertwining of Genius and Insanity - "Maker" by Eugenia LoliMore than two millennia ago Aristotle said no great genius has ever existed without a touch of madness. His teacher, Plato, had discussed madness extensively and divided it into different types; mainly clinical insanity and creative insanity — the divine one which inspires seers and poets. Today, we still hear that genius borders on insanity and that every great human has a spark of madness. But how is that so? And what does insanity really mean? For a sapiosexual philomath who has been constantly called crazy by those who know him and those who don't, I've been wanting to delve into that allusive topic for quite a while. So here it is.

Let us first start by the definition of the word ‘crazy’ as it appears in dictionaries. For simplicity's sake, I will be using ‘crazy’, ‘insane’ and ‘mad’ interchangeably in this article. There are two meaning to the adjective ‘crazy’ when describing people.


1- Mentally deranged, especially as manifested in a wild or aggressive way; a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behaviour, or social interaction; seriously mentally ill.

 Mad, insane, out of one's mind, deranged, demented, not in one's right mind, crazed, lunatic, non compos mentis, unhinged, mad as a hatter, mad as a March hare.

Informal: Mental, nutty, nutty as a fruitcake, off one's rocker, not right in the head, round/around the bend, raving mad, batty, bonkers, cuckoo, loopy, ditzy, loony, bananas, loco, with a screw loose, touched, gaga, not all there, out to lunch, crackers, nutso, out of one's tree, wacko, gonzo, batshit.

2- Extremely enthusiastic.

Synonyms: Passionate about, (very) keen on, enamored of, infatuated with, smitten with, devoted to; (very) enthusiastic about, fanatical about.

Informal: Wild about, mad about, nuts about, hog-wild about, gone on.

There is an additional informal use for the word ‘mad’ commonly used in British, and it means angry or furious.


So by definition, already the term ‘crazy’ has paradoxical meanings. To be wild in an aggressive way could actually be the opposite of passionate and devoted in an enthusiastic way. Or could they?



What's a Genius?


The word ‘genius’ originates from Latin genius, meaning guardian deity or guiding spirit (tutelary deity) which watches over each person from birth; spirit, incarnation, wit, talent; also “prophetic skill,” originally “generative power”. The noun is related to the Latin verb genui, genitus, “to bring into being, create, produce”. This sense comes from the Latin gignere, which means “to produce,” resembling jinnī in Arabic. It lives on in today's vocabulary with genie.

Because the achievements of exceptional individuals seemed to indicate the presence of a particularly powerful genius, by the time of Augustus the word began to acquire its secondary meaning of “inspiration, talent”. The meaning shifted from having a genius to being a genius, as someone with exceptional natural ability. This sense was commonly used in the English language by the beginning of the 17th century.


Labeling someone a genius is not about being highly intelligent. Neither is it about having an exceptionally high IQ, which many see as not an accurate way to reflect how smart a person really is since tests only measure a limited part of the total intelligence, and not the full cognitive abilities — like short-term memory, reasoning and verbal components. Some even believe high test scores have little to do with real genius because IQ is an ambiguous and controversial measure that is only considered useful in conjunction with other tests conducted by professionals.

How many times have we seen or known someone who has brilliant memory but poor reasoning, or great language skills but bad memory, or a superthinker who isn't too eloquent with words? A lot. Such people could be intelligent who can probably easily adapt to different circumstances. But, that's not enough for genius. Genius transcends the ‘intelligence’ label because they excel in whatever they put their mind into.

Not all intelligent people are geniuses, but all geniuses are highly intelligent. Genius, actually, has an additional talent which Einstein has called “intelligence having fun,” and that's CREATIVITY. A genius has a creative mind that is much more imaginative and constructive than a mere intelligent person. This creativity leads to invention which is one of the essential requirements of genius. Resonating with Arthur Schopenhauer words, talent hits a target no one else can hit while genius hits a target no one else can see.

Intelligence, is defined as having the capacity for thought and reason especially to a high level, possessing sound knowledge. Linguistically speaking, the word ‘brilliant’ usually comes after it, which means having or marked by unusual and impressive intelligence. Then at the top comes genius, who is brilliant, talented, and highly creative. That's why they hit targets no one even knows about.

Genius and Insanity
Conventional wisdom tells us that a genius is different from everyone else because they see the world through different eyes. They are those who have extraordinary intellectual ability and originality. While the exceptional intelligence is central to genius, as some of them have IQs of 140 and higher, not all geniuses score well on intelligence tests or perform well in school. As a matter of fact, many prodigy children were told by their teachers that they weren't going to amount to anything, and they were proven wrong. This could be the case because to conform may seem stupid to a genius.

Apart from ‘higher’ brain activity, genius also entails a vigorous sense of curiosity. A genius is someone who can always see the bigger picture of things; someone who is commonly known as “ahead of their times” and who breaks new ground with their discoveries, inventions or works of art. Usually, such people's work — creation — changes the way people view the world or the field in which the work took place. Their influence is so immense and powerful that they frequently shift paradigms.

In some cases, the recognition only comes after the person is dead. And that's because it takes some time for others, the majority, to catch up and understand them or the genius behind their works. But generally speaking, whoever is called a genius is he who goes beyond being an intelligent person; their intellect must be coupled with the ability to use that intelligence in a productive or inspiring way.


So other than the biological differences that may be there, what's the secret of genius? Well, it is established that one of the traits of those highly creative people is the ability to disregard unimportant and insignificant distractions. Without the distraction, they get a better opportunity to concentrate on what they are doing in their Here and Now. Whatever it is they are into, they are able to keep doing it consistently and with perseverance — with “indefatigable assiduity” — and that's how geniuses habitually excel and achieve things no one has before. Even Einstein himself said that he has no special talent and that he is only passionately curious. And in that sense, being extremely enthusiastic and passionate, Einstein was definitely crazy, highly crazy too.

In psychology, this “disregarding the unimportant” behaviour in a creative genius is described as “little or no latent inhibition”. Meaning, they have an unconscious ability to reject unimportant or irrelevant stimuli, which naturally allows them to remain in­ contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from everywhere around them. The genius is much more conscious of their surrounding than the average Joe, they constantly observe the patterns in life and learn from them. William James considered the art of knowing what to overlook to be wisdom.

As University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson explains, “This means that the normal person classifies an object, and then forgets about it, even though that object is much more complex and interesting than he or she thinks. The creative person, by contrast, is always open to new possibilities.”







Now let us foolosophize a little, shall we. Sanity is essentially a societal concept. And just like other concepts, the average — the majority — get to form it. The average don't like their safe world view challenged, so for them anyone who transcends their concept of sanity by acting and/or thinking differently is labeled insane, a lunatic, someone who isn't ‘normal’ by their standards.


In reality, anyone and anything that comes from outside our norms and isn’t understood is usually deemed insane by the general population, even feared at start and considered heresy or blasphemy. Just like Plato's Allegory of the Cave, and just like the case with prophets and seers, the fear of novelty always stems from not understanding…people and/or things. Because, again, it’s the average majority that sets the standards of what is considered ‘normal', and what is not normal, or insane. Consider the ‘Rock & Roll is the music of the devil craze in 1950s' America as an example. Before that, it was the Wright Brothers, Columbus and Galileo among others who were looked upon as ‘insane’ for thinking outside the box. Less understanding always means more fear.

Plato had distinguished between three types of madness; rational madness, God-given madness (Theia mania), and disordered desiderative states or mental illness. Both, in the Symposium and Phaedrus, he explains that love cannot be pursued through soberness. Love is madness and philosophers are in love with wisdom; therefore, rational madness is an essential part of “the good life”. A little bit after, Aristotle concluded that all geniuses, without exception, are of a melancholy temperament.

Emphasizing on Plato's notion, much later C.S Lewis once said that the love of knowledge is a kind of madness.


Interestingly, many of those mammoth souls were wise and humble enough to also think of themselves as fools who aren't certain about anything but their own ignorance. For only the fool thinks he knows; only he sees the world in absolutes, and only he ceases to learn.

Insane Asylum 2

In the above list, some of the reasons for admission to insane asylums in the late 1800s where Novel reading, Politics, Religions, Tobacco and Masturbation, and Laziness. Yep. And that wasn't aeons ago. Homosexuality was, in fact, considered a personality disorder that required medical help until 1973. This may seem funny now but can you really grasp how life and reality were different a mere 100 years ago? Today, some psychiatrists got the audacity to suggest that non-conformity is a mental illness.

That said, the concept of sanity and mental health in societies — and according to the law — keeps changing over time, and likely, that will always be so. Who knows, maybe in the next 50 years all those different folks will be celebrated instead of being diagnosed and labeled then medicated and dulled.

It's important to note, however, that not all sorts of mental illness are not real or are not dangerous. Some of them do require medical help like those suffering from depression or bipolar disorder because they can turn to addiction and suicide if not treated. In fact, Vincent van Gogh was among those geniuses who were mentally ill; he suffered from severe depression, mutilated one of his ears in 1888, entered an asylum, then shot himself in 1890 at the age of 37 whilst painting at the height of his creative powers. That, is an example of serious illness.




About the Author:

Omar Cherif Omar Cherif is a trilingual writer and researcher, photographer and blogger with degrees in journalism, psychology, and philosophy. After working in the corporate world for ten years, he took writing as a vocation and is currently finalizing his first book about dreams, the subconscious mind and spirituality among other topics.

You can follow Omar on here:
One Lucky Soul

And you can find more of his work on his blog and on Flickr:
One Lucky Soul


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