Genius and other mental abnormalities

Genius and other mental abnormalities

By Gwydion M. Williams

Three million years ago, our ancestors were undistinguished little apes. Walking apes, that is the big difference we find between pre-humans such as ‘Lucy’ and the modern chimps.

The big visible difference. Human infants have an enormously long ‘play-time’, compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. A baby ape is an active little fellow, a human infant is as helpless as a foetus.

Babies also have big bright eyes that seem to watch us all the time. And in fact do watch us and sometimes react: this has been gradually proven over the last few decades in the face of a strong ‘rationalist’ belief that newborn babies were mindless and inert. This ‘rationalist’ belief was a cultural prejudice that ignored such evidence as there was. The mammalian norm is to be born blind and helpless in a secure nest or burrow. This only works when you have a nest, which is why horses, antelope etc. are born with eyes wide open and legs that can let them run on their first day of life: it will also be their last day of life if they don’t keep up with the herd.

Humans are an odd exception, helpless for an abnormally long time, but with eyes wide open right from the start of life. Despite which, ‘experts’ assumed that newborn infants were blank, mindless creatures who needed no love or stimulus. Which meant that they should be kept away from their mothers and other possible sources of infection. The norm in the 1950s was sealed rooms with isolated babies in neat rows of cots, physically well-tended but treated as mental blanks. The common-sense ‘interactive’ approach that mothers had always taken to babies was ignored on the basis of a ‘rationalism’ that rested on nothing very much.

Human consciousness is not just a matter of growing a large brain. That could be done much more quickly if that was all there was to it. The half-grown and pre-sexual stage in humans is unusually long in humans, allowing for our body-size. Our physical growth is unusually slow for a mammal. And this seemingly wasteful delay was acquired during our development as humans: our close relatives like the chimp grow much more quickly. Which leads to the question, just what is it we need to learn in our unnaturally prolonged childhoods?

There’s a valuable book called Love at Goon Park that documents how the folly was corrected. A scientist working with infant monkeys who’d been taken from the actual mothers found that they always preferred a soft-furred mother-doll to a mother-doll with milk. Equally unexpectedly, they found that monkeys raised that way could not function as proper monkeys, lacking many of the ‘innate’ behaviours that monkeys normally showed.

All of this was a corrective to psychologists of the day, who preferred to work with rats and let their rat-work guide them to a belief that new-born babies were better off isolated from their mothers. Rat-mothers bond strongly with baby rats, but any mother or baby will do. Infant rats can be added or removed without disturbing the family structure. No one thought ‘but that’s just rats, crude short-lived creatures who are breeding within a few months of being born’. They had hard data on rats, and it needed some equally hard data from monkeys before they’d admit they might be wrong.

‘Love Is Having A Mother-figure’, or maybe ‘Love is Being Loved’. Human truths need to be reasserted against the dismal ‘wisdom’ of the 20th century’s pop psychology. Freudianism was always deeply suspicious of mothers: a pathologically negative and depressing creed, convinced that humans are governed by appalling instincts, rage and secret desires for murder and incest.

Freudianism is also a rehash of the traditional Christian view—maybe Jewish as well, but I definitely recognise bits and pieces of the Protestant-Christian teachings I grew up with. You have the individual soul (Ego), urged to good and noble deeds by God (Superego), yet tempted into sin by the devil (Id). The Man Of God (psychiatrist) offers help to the sinner (patient) and will exorcise the devil (cure traumas). No wonder it was a big hit in the USA, in complex urban environments where traditional religions looked old-fashioned, weak and irrelevant. In a similar spirit, people nowadays get visitations from large-headed aliens rather than angels, saints or devils.

Beyond giving modern scientific respectability to the old notion of Daemonic Possession, it’s moot if psychiatrists know anything useful. It is notable that shamans and traditional healers do just as well for mental illnesses, whereas they do much worse for almost all physical illnesses. Among modern psychiatrists, some of the most effective are the Behaviourists, who ignore the mind and go to work on particular patterns of behaviour. Yet Behaviourism was also part of the ‘Abracadabra Rationalism’ of the 1950s, the assumption that a schema that imitated the methods of physics must have the same degree of certainty that physics has painfully built up over several centuries of work.

Behind every Great Man there’s a Great Ape, you might say. You can’t even get a functional monkey without adult care, social as well as physical. Ignore Phillip Larkin’s silly complaint about parents ‘messing you up’ (From Hell, and Hull, and Philip Larkin / Good Lord, Deliver Us). Contrary to the views of the 19th century rationalist-radicals and the 20th century rationalist-reactionaries, we would not in fact develop as lovely specimens of ‘The Individual’ in the absence of proper mothering. You could get an excellent turtle that way: turtles hatch from eggs that their mother laid and then abandoned. Those infant turtles who don’t get killed off go into the sea able to become functional turtles, no problem. But even crocodiles have some maternal care, rats rather more, and creatures as complex as monkeys are absolutely dependent on it.

Love at Goon Park records the hard fight to convince the psychiatric establishment that they were wrong. Oddly enough, the very same people who denied emotional ties among babies were quick to invoke it among their own. When an analyst called Spitz showed a film with hard evidence that mothers were necessary, “one prominent analyst marched up to Spitz with tears in his eyes, saying ‘How could you do this to us?’… Could some fifty years of psychiatry be wrong?” (Page 89). But if fifty years of psychiatry was based on an idea of human nature that psychiatrists ignored when dealing with other psychiatrists, how could it fail to be wrong?

The books focus is Harry Harlow, the experimenter who devised the tests for infant monkeys between a soft-furred mother-doll and a mother-doll with milk. He’d expected the food-provider to be preferred, but accurately recorded it when he found the opposite. And his colleagues hated to be told things like that. “The only emotions studied in animals were negative—fear, loathing, pain. The idea that animals were motivated by love, what vague notion was this?” (Ibid, page 153.) Love at Goon Park could be a better scientific romance than A Beautiful Mind, and Hollywood could dramatise it as a marketable product with rather fewer lies.

Love at Goon Park includes a fascinating small tale about an early monkey-baby who was given a mother-doll with no face. When later they later tried to give it a face, the baby was horrified (Ibid, page 153.) This matches the earlier observations about how British children evacuated from cities to safe homes in the country were mostly miserable despite homes that were loving and in many ways better than they had come from.

If it needs mother-love to make a monkey, it may have needed a touch of madness make a human out of monkeys or apes. That’s the argument of a book called The Madness of Adam + Eve, which notes the strong association between genius and schizophrenia, including a lot of high-achievers with children or other relatives who are hopelessly schizophrenic. They suggest that this is due to brain-boosting genes that produce madness in overdose: “If 2 per cent of the population carry a schizophrenic genome… If four genes must simultaneously be present, then almost everyone in the population may well be carrying one, two or three of the necessary genes.” (The Madness of Adam + Eve, page 255.) The book also explains how a ‘schizophrenic genome’ is not an absolute. Identical twins may consist of one hopeless schizophrenic and another who lives a normal life.

Being both functionally normal and highly creative is a delicate balancing act. A society may help or hinder, which may explain why human creativity seems to come in waves of unexpected advance followed by stagnation. And the core values of the USA are hostile to anything ‘weird’ or out of line. This is an exaggeration of older English attitudes, like so many other US values—we were their source culture, after all, and the North American colonies were a place where things could be taken much further than in crowded Europe.

English culture from the 19th century has been full of ‘sophophobia’, fear and dislike of anyone who seems to be clever or interested in scholarship. In world terms it is a very great oddity, since almost all cultures have a respect for learning unless it is turned to some purpose hostile to that society’s core values. England blundered, throwing away its early advantage in industrialisation by a deep hostility to science. The British public schools taught their pupils Latin and Greek—only a few of the ‘swots’ bothered with Hindustani or the other languages spoken by the peoples that the British Empire was ruling. ‘Trade’ was vulgar, finance was acceptable but the ideal was the ‘country gentleman’ living a rather ignorant and useless life off the fruits of other people’s labour. Such characters had frequently been active, enterprising and interested in science in the 18th century. The 19th century involved a wrong turn and led on to the 20th century fall of Britain’s global empire.

The USA is a little different, since business and engineering were celebrated. The USA was able to get ahead with large-scale production of automobiles, aircraft, computers etc.—all of them ideas that originated in Old Europe. Pure science in the 20th century USA has been mostly Jewish, as indeed has most of the culture that outsiders find interesting, Jewish and Black and occasionally Southern White, but the core culture is dull and determined to stay that way. All-American jocks hate anything that might be bigger or wiser than their own little worlds.

Gilbert Nash was an exception, a genius from within mainstream America. The original book version of A Beautiful Mind explains how Nash was disliked by other children at his school, but was too big to be successfully bullied. Presumably bullying has successfully snuffed out other potentially brilliant minds and turned them into routine middle-Americans. In the case of Jews, they could safely assume that they’d be picked on regardless—and they also tended to grow up in urban cultures which were predominantly Italian and Irish, cultures where you find a respect for learning even among tough and uneducated characters. Jews also went for those areas where there was the least discrimination: academia, where interesting ideas take priority of personal likes and dislikes; also law and accountancy, where a stereotyped view of Jews wasn’t a drawback to getting hired as an outside professional.

Nash was enough of a middle-American to be hostile to Jews: the small-town mentality determined to exclude anyone with any Jewish blood from their elite social and business circles. But Nash as a mathematical genius could not have found many non-Jews in American academic life who would have understood the rarefied mathematical concepts that were his whole reason for being alive. So most of the time he hid his prejudices, and only during his breakdown did he start showing his true and nasty feeling.

Then there’s his private life. The central romance and marriage shown in the film is more or less true, but much less than the whole truth. As well as several homosexual relationships, Nash had lived with a woman and fathered a son on her, but decided she was not well-born enough for him to marry her.   Also his wife divorced him when he seemed to be getting no better and was ill-treating her, and then they remarried when he did get better.

Nash is not mentioned as having any imaginary friends. He did do some government-connected work at the RAND corporation. But he also thought the government were after him and tried to renounce his US citizenship.

Obviously none of this got included in the film version. And nor did Nash’s attempts to seek refuge in East German out of fear of being drafted into the US army. The true story, a bisexual misfit who was hastened into madness by the prospect of being drafted for the Korean War, that’s not what the public want to hear about. The film gives him patriotic fantasies that would make a run-of-the-mill Hollywood thriller, and may be a reworking of some discarded project that originally had nothing to do with Nash. Still, A Beautiful Mind is no more lying or insincere than the typical Hollywood film, and it does deal with some serious topics.

As for the Nash equilibrium, the man’s big step forward in mathematical economics, it’s a roundabout way of recognising that society does exist, and that people as a group are better off if they limit their freedom of choice in ways that are against their interests as individuals. This is a step up from the standard theory, which from Jevons to Von Neumann has seen people as ‘utilisers’, creatures who work with other creatures on a coldly selfish basis. The term ‘utilisers’ is my own invention, they say ‘rational agents’. But Jevons developed his economics on the basis of existing Utilitarian beliefs, and his influence lives on in modern New Right economics long after Utilitarianism itself has perished.

The greatest happiness of the greatest possible number sounds a brilliant principle. It fails for numerous reasons, including the fact that a coherent society needs to impose rules that are not a source of individual happiness to any one individual. A single selfish individual will be much happier if they sometimes lie and sometimes break their word, provided only that they are clever enough not to be caught too often or lose their reputation. But if everyone behaves like that, no one can trust anyone else or work with anyone else, everyone wastes time guarding against everyone else’s deceptions and everyone is worse off.

Real societies work on a mix of sympathy and equity. Sympathy makes us care about those we are only loosely connected with, and do not need from a purely selfish point of view. Equity makes us feel that we should return a favour even to someone we don’t like or sympathise with. It’s an observable fact that people will feel guilty when they have broken their own code and done something they feel to be unfair. And on the ‘enforcement’ side of the social consensus, we feel the need to get even with someone who wronged or cheated us, even when it might not be in our best interests to do so. Love is only part of the answer. And building a functional system of sympathy and equity needs some guiding philosophy or religion, which explains why no human culture is without some such creed.

Love at Goon Park finds love in monkeys, and in apes as well. Love also seems to exists among dogs, cats, horses, elephants, whales etc. Love helped turn rat-like mammals into social mammals, creatures who look after their own herd or family or kin-group, so did humans acquire anything extra? In my view they did, something higher than love, the much rarer quality of sympathy, caring at least a little about people you don’t love and might not even like. Huge cities full of unrelated people can get along, not wholly smoothly but in a way that would be quite impossible for any other animal. Apes fight each other for power and status like the crudest sort of gangster—and such people are only ever a small minority in any society, and also capable of sympathy at times. Sympathy that includes finding a place for odd and sometimes dislikeable characters like the real Gilbert Nash, who did do his own part to improve our understanding of the world.

Self-interest by detached ‘utilisers’ would make for a futile war of all-against-all. Love is of necessity confined to a small familiar group, and this can result in a fragmented society in which each small group looks after itself and exploits outsiders. This happens, humans behaving like a troop of baboons, but it is the lower end of human behaviour. More often we are guided by notions of sympathy and equity—qualities quite beyond any other animal, unless we credit the chimps with a little of it.

Sympathy and equity also depend on people understanding each other, and having the same idea of what people can and should do:

“Brain scans have revealed how we can second-guess other people’s behaviour by subconsciously thinking through how we would do the same task ourselves. These mental dry runs enable us to anticipate the next moves of others in many everyday situations, from what opponents will do in chess games to avoiding vehicle collisions.

“‘We probably put ourselves in the shoes of other people and run through the same processes in our own minds as they do in theirs,’ says Narender Ramnani of the University of Oxford… Some of the brain regions that lit up during prediction matched those that other researchers have identified as abnormal in the brains of individuals with autism. ‘When normal people try to figure out what’s going on in someone else’s head, they use the same brain regions that are abnormal in people with autism,’ he says. ‘We plan now to build on our work to better understand autism’” (New Scientist, 10th January 2004).

As well as creativity and schizophrenia, The Madness of Adam + Eve also discusses sociopathic and psychopathic behaviour. “But the core concept of psychopathy… do not relate to violence, but to complete disdain for the feelings and concerns of others… The true psychopath often behaves as though he (or, less commonly, she) does not even have feelings and concerns or, if he does understand them, uses that understanding for exploitation rather than empathy…

“Leaders in business, in government and in any organisation may sometimes be psychopaths… the decent, honourable rank-and-file members of such groups… often cannot bring themselves to believe that they are being so manipulated.” (The Madness of Adam + Eve, p 233.)

The book also suggests that democracy is a cure, but this is moot. In both Britain and America, leaders emerging from a competitive democratic process show a lot of signs of a “complete disdain for the feelings and concerns of others”.



Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection, by D. Blum. Wiley 2003.

The Madness of Adam + Eve, David Horrobin, Corgi 2001.


(The article first appeared in Labour & Trade Union Review, March 2004.)