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Part II of today’s Wednesday ORF comes to us (once again) from the excellent science magazine Nautilus. Seriously. Go subscribe. Go subscribe to the print edition. You will want to keep it on your coffee table so your guests have interesting, delightfully-written science to read and gorgeous artwork to go along with it.

The context.
For some reason I can’t entirely fathom, articles on psychopathy (or on people with certain psychopathic traits) have made several hysterical rounds of the media the past couple of years. First, there was this feature in The New York Times Magazine about a 9-year-old boy who may or may not be an actual psychopath (see The Last Psychiatrist’s excellent dissection of some of the article’s shakier claims here). It was distributed widely, and people reacted as one might expect – with fear and confusion (see: any and all comments on the original article, including shaming the parents for having the gall to procreate again). More recently, The Atlantic and other media outlets ran a feature on University of California, Irvine neuroscientist Dr. James Fallon, who now self-identifies as a “non-violent psychopath”. And yet, in shining the spotlight on Dr. Fallon, one indirectly illuminates one of Dr. Fallon’s many research interests: the neural circuitry underlying creativity, a fascinating and contentious subject.

The article.
Neuroscientist Dr. Dean Keith Simonton of University of California, Irvine encourages us to think a little more deeply about various types of psychopathology (for example, schizophrenia) as they relate to creativity. In an article published last week on the Nautilus website – “If You Think You’re a Genius, You’re Crazy” – Dr. Simonton explores the connection between creative genius and psychopathology, and explains that the primary link is in the shared process of “cognitive disinhibition” – that is, in the tendency to notice things that most people might file away as unimportant, and to pay attention to the apparently irrelevant when the average brain’s attentional machinery might ignore it. Pretty interesting stuff.

I’d especially like to call attention to the Pandora’s box of neuroethics that this article opens. If we accept the premise that certain types of creativity correlate with mental illness, do we then choose to live with the illness in favor of encouraging creative production, and risk further cognitive decline? Or do we treat the illness, restore suffering individuals to health and happiness, and at the same time lose some creative potential? And more broadly, in a way that ties back to the original question of psychopathy – what value do we place on “normal” (if there even is such a thing), and on “normalizing” people who appear unlikely to harm either others or themselves? No easy answers here, unfortunately.

Got the questions, though? Good. Go chat with your neighbor about them.

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