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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Genius, Madness, and China

Via Instapundit, China Is Engineering Genius Babies, and I'm finding the reaction amusing (though I'm easily amused).  To me, the most amusing sort of reaction is, "this will end badly because geniuses are crazy!"  For example:
"High IQ correlates, almost always with highly undesirable characteristics of an intellectual and physical nature…"
Is it true?  Are smart people generally totally messed up mentally and physically?  That seems to be the narrative:
"The idea that creativity and psychopathology are somehow linked goes way back to antiquity--to the time of Aristotle. Centuries later, this belief was developed and expanded by various psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and psychologists. For instance, Cesare Lombroso, M.D., argued toward the end of the 19th century that genius and madness were closely connected manifestations of an underlying degenerative neurological disorder."
It's an emotional topic, bordering on political and ideological dogma.  As a result, when I did a bit of searching, I decided to stay away from mainstream media, which often likes to sensationalize everything.  Instead, I stuck with much drier sources like PubMed and Sage.  The bottom line is that when sticking to objective measures such as IQ, there's virtually no link between intelligence (as measured by IQ) and mental illness with the possible exception of bipolar disease.  Here are some representative links regarding IQ versus mental illness (except for bipolar disorder):

IQ and mental disorder in young men, Mortensen, et al 
RESULTS: Schizophrenia and related  disorders, other psychotic disorders,  adjustment, personality, alcohol and  substance-use-related disorders were significantly associated with low IQ scores,  but this association remained significant  for the four non-psychotic disorders only for the four non-psychotic disorders only  when adjusting for comorbid diagnoses. For most diagnostic categories, test scores were positively associated with the length of the interval between testing and first admission.  ICD mood disorders as well as  neuroses and related disorders were not significantly associated with low IQ scores. 
A longitudinal study of premorbid IQ Score and risk of developing schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression, and other nonaffective psychoses, Zammit, et al 
RESULTS: There was no association between premorbid IQ score and risk of bipolar disorder. Lower IQ was associated with increased risk of schizophrenia, severe depression, and other nonaffective psychoses. Risk of schizophrenia was increased in subjects with average IQ compared with those with high scores, indicating that risk is spread across the whole IQ range.
That's not very surprising to me.  It's tough to do intelligent things like ace IQ tests if you're a schizophrenic or otherwise mentally ill.  A common retort to that is that they are often geniuses, they just don't do well on IQ tests because of their disease.  To which my retort is that I'm a genius except my stupidity gets in the way of my doing well on IQ tests.  If genius is what might be achieved if all our limitations were removed, then we're all geniuses.  We're all special.

But bipolar disorder may well be different:
Is bipolar disorder more common in highly intelligent people? A cohort study of a million men, Gale, et al 
ABSTRACT: Anecdotal and biographical reports have long suggested that bipolar disorder is more common in people with exceptional cognitive or creative ability. Epidemiological evidence for such a link is sparse. We investigated the relationship between intelligence and subsequent risk of hospitalisation for bipolar disorder in a prospective cohort study of 1 049 607 Swedish men. Intelligence was measured on conscription for military service at a mean age of 18.3 years and data on psychiatric hospital admissions over a mean follow-up period of 22.6 years was obtained from national records. Risk of hospitalisation with any form of bipolar disorder fell in a stepwise manner as intelligence increased (P for linear trend < 0.0001). However, when we restricted analyses to men with no psychiatric comorbidity, there was a ‘reversed-J’ shaped association: men with the lowest intelligence had the greatest risk of being admitted with pure bipolar disorder, but risk was also elevated among men with the highest intelligence (P for quadratic trend=0.03), primarily in those with the highest verbal (P for quadratic trend=0.009) or technical ability (P for quadratic trend < 0.0001). At least in men, high intelligence may indeed be a risk factor for bipolar disorder, but only in the minority of cases who have the disorder in a pure form with no psychiatric comorbidity.
Excellent school performance at age 16 and risk of adult bipolar disorder: national cohort study., MacCabe, et al 
RESULTS: Individuals with excellent school performance had a nearly fourfold increased risk of later bipolar disorder compared with those with average grades (hazard ratio HR = 3.79, 95% CI 2.11-6.82). This association appeared to be confined to males. Students with the poorest grades were also at moderately increased risk of bipolar disorder (HR = 1.86, 95% CI 1.06-3.28).
But the version of bipolar disorder they're considering here affects about 0.2% of the population (in the referenced study).  So even with highly intelligent people having 4 times the prevalence, that's still less than 1% of the population.

So I'd say the Chinese are safe as far as vastly increasing mental illness in their genius breeding program.


Howard said...

Won't hurt them that much, but it won't help either. If they could create greater persistence, knowledge and wisdom - that would be of greater significance. Especially wisdom within the political realm.

Also, the culture of handling simple logistics and problem solving is severely stunted - just ask RMP.

Hey Skipper said...

"High IQ correlates, almost always with highly undesirable characteristics of an intellectual and physical nature…" Is it true?


Big Bang Theory is a documentary, right?

erp said...

Highly undesirable by whom? I had a theoretical physicist son and his friends around the house for many years and the TBBT kids are not at all like the ones I know -- other than denigrating 'mechanics' (other non-physics scientists). Although some of their pranks and jokes were bizarre. Their likes and dislikes other than physics were pretty similar to the less brainy kids, i.e., girls, sports...

Even so Iove TBBT when it doesn't bring in romance and have been watching it on demand almost every night. I especially like the opening credits.

BTW -- having an exceptionally brainy kid is sometimes as challenging as having one on the other end of the spectrum. As they say, I could write a book.

Bret said...

Since I don't watch TV, I've never seen TBBT.

I agree with Howard, that overall raising the IQ in China will have marginal, if any, direct benefit. Though greater intelligence in the hard sciences and technology is probably beneficial.

Harry Eagar said...

IQ is a bogus measurement, so going from here to there isn't gloing to work.

Peter said...

Bret, I'm wondering whether you think there is any correlation between genius and irony deficiency, which I think is the basis of TBBT's comedy. For example, if an astoundingly brilliant blogger posts on multi-dimensional complexity bubbles and hyperfroth as symbols of the march of civilization, and then concludes there really is no correlation between genius and madness, is that funny or not?

Anonymous said...


I would say there is no correlation, but genius makes irony deficiency really stand out, because you expect the genius to get it.

Bret said...


I agree with aog that things like irony deficiency would stand out in the really intelligent because the delta between the capability and deficiency would be very striking. I think that's where most of the myth of genius and madness lies - it's striking that someone so smart can have all the silly little idiosyncrasies, neuroses, foibles, and other flaws that are part of the rest of us.

If an "astoundingly brilliant blogger" had written a post about hyperfroth and civilization that was so crazy it descended into madness and then followed it up by denying a relationship between genius and madness, I would definitely find that ironic and very funny. Indeed, I laughed when I read your comment.

On the other hand, the only occurrence that I'm aware of that vaguely resembles what you described is a moderately intelligent blogger who wrote a somewhat unusual, but nowhere near crazy, post about civilization and collapse before disproving a universal link between genius and madness.

And for that combination, I don't see any irony or irony deficiency at all. :-)

Bret said...


In what way is "IQ a bogus measure"? I certainly agree that IQ is far from a perfect measure, but that's different than completely bogus.

Bret said...


I'm not sure how much it will help or hurt.

Some discoveries, inventions, etc. (mostly in the hard sciences) do seem to be both useful and much more easily discovered by those who are very smart (i.e. those like Einstein).

On the other hand, I agree that there's at least a grain of truth to Orwell's quip that "Only an intellectual could say something so stupid" and that raising intelligence across the board might (or might not) actually be counterproductive for a society as a whole.

Harry Eagar said...

According to Gould in 'Mismeasure of Man' (the only one of his books I thought was really good), it measures something that doesn't exist.

About the same time (long ago), Howard Gardner wrote 'Frames of Mind: the Theory of Multiple Intelligences.' I found it a satisfactory replacement for Temin's theory.

My own experience tells me that there is no such thing as a number that relates to intelligence.