A New Take on Genius
Co-occurrence of autistic and psychotic savantism could explain genius.
Posted January 13, 2010
Calling someone “a genius” is often little more than subjective hyperbole, but when it comes to the likes of Newton, Beethoven, or even Nobel Prize winners like John Nash, most people would accept that there is also a major element of objective truth in the claim. Clearly, some people are gifted to an extraordinary degree, and calling them geniuses seems appropriate, however you define the term. Psychologists, philosophers, and biographers have struggled to offer general definitions, but until now no one has been able to include genius in a model of cognitive development that also embraces normality and pathology.
But however that may be, genius emerges naturally from and resolves a major paradox in the imprinted brain theory. According to its distinctive diametric model of the mind, there are two cognitive systems: mentalistic and mechanistic cognition, each adapted to its proper universe of interaction, personal and psychological in the first, and impersonal and physical in the second. Ideally, both should be balanced, but excessive development of one and/or underdevelopment of the other can result in an autistic or a psychotic spectrum disorder (ASD/PSD). If mechanistic skills are highly developed and mentalistic ones deficient, the result may be autistic savantism of the kind seen in the recently deceased and justly famous Kim Peek. You could call Peek a genius, and he certainly was in certain respects, but savant seems the most accurate term, implying as it does outstanding knowledge in limited areas, rather than the broader originality and all-encompassing creativity that we associate with the true genius of Newton and Beethoven. In a previous post I have pointed out that, if there are autistic savants, then the symmetry of the diametric model predicts that there should also be psychotic savants with the exact opposite configuration of skills (that is, outstanding mentalism with mechanistic deficits), the twentieth-century paradigm being Freud.
At first sight, the diametric model seems to rule out anyone being autistic and psychotic at the same time, yet the case of John Nash provides incontrovertible evidence of high-functioning autism in his youth but severe psychotic illness in adulthood, and the same may be true of Newton and Beethoven. In the general population, the theory definitely predicts low co-morbidity rates for ASD and PSD, but it does not exclude the possibility that in exceptional cases both could occur and might account for the genius of people like Nash, Newton, or Beethoven. The theory also makes the counter-intuitive and completely testable prediction that in such cases an autistic phase should precede the later psychotic episode to produce a composite of autistic and psychotic savantism whose breadth, inclusiveness, and rarity would account for what most people would see as true genius.
Indeed, according to the measures I suggested in a previous post, such genius could be objectively measured. If you had a negative autism spectrum quotient (AQ) to measure mentalistic deficit/mechanistic hypertrophy, and a corresponding positive psychotic spectrum quotient (PS) to measure the contrary, normality would sum to an overall mentalistic quotient (MQ) of zero. True geniuses would be predicted to show a very large standard deviation (SD: the average difference from the mean) in both directions but an overall MQ within the normal range: in other words, close to zero. This is what would differentiate them from autistic or psychotic savants: such savants would show large SDs in the respective direction, along with a negatively- or positively-deviating MQ overall. True geniuses, by contrast, would be able to compensate and balance their cognitive configuration no matter how far it deviated in both directions, and this is probably the secret of their creativity and the explanation of their great rarity—not to mention the psychopathology often associated with genius.
As I point out in the last chapter of The Imprinted Brain, according to this way of looking at things, Freud was a failed genius: someone who began with a distinctly mechanistic approach to the mind but who became increasingly psychotic and delusional as he aged. At the end he was using psychoanalysis as a means of character-assassination of his political enemies (specifically, Woodrow Wilson) and writing historical detective-fiction about Moses, with whom he seems to have had a megalomanic identification. The exception, as they say, proves the rule!