Sunday, November 1, 2009

Genius and Eccentricity

Actually, I think the idea that genius automatically carries with it the price tag of eccentricity or a kind of insanity is over-stated and under-supported by what ever kinds of research could be done to prove it.

That we are more interested in the lives of geniuses may only mean that we tend to be attracted and entertained by the eccentricities of history’s most examined, scrutinized characters. We are less likely to be interested in more mundane lives of those others who are just as integral to the full spectrum of human inventiveness and genius.

We are also less likely to scrutinize in so personal a way individuals in the rest of the population that are not considered genius, and so really have no way of comparing which “sample” has a greater degree/proportion of insanity/eccentricity.

We are also attracted by the eccentric on one level because, I think, it reminds us of our selves, our community of friends and family, our relationships, our inner lives and our own potential participation and desire to participate in the genius of the species.

I work in the mental health field so I have some background in this. The fact that we tend to know more about the lives of those who are considered to possess genius may throw off any untested theory that there are a greater proportion of eccentrics and/or a greater degree of insanity among those who are considered genius than those who are not.

As my work involves a much, much larger proportion of people who are not considered genius than people who are (although I might petition that rather arbitrary application of the definition for a definition that recognizes that everyone has, at least, the potential for genius in their own lives and community and may apply it in their own way), and as I am privy to the deepest life quandaries and pathologies of these people, of which there are numerous and frequent examples, even among the many who look to be quite "normal" to those who are not privy to their inner, more private and secret, lives, I am skeptical about any claims that the proportion of eccentrics and/or level of insanity among those who possess genius are any higher or lower than among the general population.

Though I would be glad to change my own theory if someone could fashion and implement a far-reaching enough study, I am not sure how that could be done, if one considers the enormous barriers of subjectivity that all this naturally calls into play.

How would we measure genius? Certainly not by IQ alone. How would we measure eccentricity or insanity? Certainly the behaviors and intelligences of any one culture, historical time frame, or social milieu can only be defined along a continuum from harmfully insane or eccentric to mind-numbingly dull and normal if each is left to be defined within its own sets of relative norms and abnormalities.

What system could we devise to compare these various and potentially innumerable sets of norms? Would we say that Moses was crazy for hearing a burning bush speak in the voice of his god if we are willing, at the same time, to continue to put much weight into the commonly held idea that artists like VanGogh or Sylvia Plath were insane because they heard voices? What is our system of measurements and how do we determine a manner of implementation of a system of measure that is absent our own set of assumed norms?

It could be that it only appears that the "genius" segment of the human community has more than its share of eccentricity because we know more about them than even our own “normal” neighbors and, in addition, we are attracted to genius, love the stories of their struggles, loves, pathologies, failures and successes simply because they DO reflect our own lives, families and communities of loved ones so well. Their stories are ours.

Another reason we may like to focus on geniuses’ foibles has something to do with our own deep feelings that our lives lack the kind of meaning and import that the lives and accomplishments of geniuses have and we are, on some levels, envious. So we like to balance their accomplishments against our own by diminishing their lives against our own lives.

Oddly enough, if my own theory holds true, we would be better off seeing their lives as comparable to ours in that they have the same struggles, heartbreak and victories, on very personal levels, that any of the rest of us do. Then, perhaps, we would also be more able to recognize and catalyze our own potential for genius.


Anonymous said...

You obviously deliberately over-examined and overly criticized the coexistence of levels of intelligence considered "genius" and eccentricity.

Your arguments are no justification. For example; you state that we don't sufficiently profile the average mind, and thus we don't have suitable control group in the comparison of the average and the extraordinary. That's such an asinine statement. We're SURROUNDED by average minds. Exposure to them is significant, and it's quite obvious that eccentricity (eccentricity perceived by the normal mind, that is) is more prevalent in those with an I.Q. of that of a genius than those with an I.Q. indicating average intelligence.

Bob Vance said...

While I welcome your input I post your comment as an example of the kind of disagreement that does exactly what it accuses. You must have some standard and measurement of average mind that is quite limited in range and scope to make such statements, but you offer neither empirical data or detailed argument, or experience, to back up what you have said.

At any rate you offer no proof of the obviousness you profess exists.

And what does eccentric mean? What is the range of behaviors that would be called eccentric and in which circumstances? Having worked for almost twenty years in the face-to-face human services field I have come across just as many eccentricities in people with normal intelligence (and who generally posess less inner resource to manage and integrate them) than I have in those with extraordinary intelligence.

I would be more than happy, and intrigued, to continue this conversation with you. I challenge you to identify yourself if you choose to post more. Your blanket and generalize refutation of my essay is telling, however. Perhaps you could start by presenting detailed evidence of what you say is obvious... that it is "quite obvious" that eccentricity is more prevalent in those with higher intelligence.

Odit said...

Well, I think the reason for the claim that eccentric people have more tendency to be geniuses than normal people is that, because, genius itself is already a component of eccentricity. Being genius and being eccentric has one thing in common, they're both out of the mainstream. And normal people are, well, normal. They wouldn't be called normal if they possess some genius way of thinking.

(Sorry for my English, I'm still learning the language)

Bob Vance said...

I appreciate your comment and your thinking. Certainly genius has its eccentric aspect, just because it IS different; but this may only place it among the possibilities of individuation... which in themselves, all the possibilities, are NORMAL occurences in the human species because individuation is normal, and in this way and many ways makes what is called eccentric normal. That brings us to something of a conundrum, perhaps a circular argument of reasoning: if we accept that individuation as a basic and essential part of the human organism is normal and must by its nature BE eccentric due to the fact that it occurs no where else in the species in combination of or as a single attribute that is different than any other, then eccentricity may in fact be normal... any other concept of 'normal' applied to the species limits the range of individuation/eccentricity and may be, in fact, a social/behavioral phenomenon that demands that some amount of denying or oppressing individuation, or the naturally occurring eccentric nature of each person, takes place.

Which, then, is more eccentric? The individual that works or is made to fit into a false and too narrow range of behavior and thinking that is the concept of mainstream or "normal", or the one that celebrates or cannot/will not deny their natural and normal individuation?

Anonymous said...

"genius" isn't even a coherent concept. many attribute it to your iq, but i highly doubt this since iq only really seeks to classify intelligence.

i definitely think genius cannot be measured simply because there are infinite variants of genius, everywhere. my best guess is that the mind correlates to the level of genius, and each mind is authentic since each person has a unique combination of sensory knowledge.

as for eccentricity, i think that it is just a characteristic that is commonly regarded (both by the scientific community and the mainstream) as a trait of genius. so i agree with you that there isn't necessarily a correlation between the two. i guess many people wield the presumption because genius relies to intuition (the ability to make links and define separate concepts together) and i guess that intuition is an unconventional method of thinking a bit like having an eccentricity.

just a thought?

Iyathurai Aingaratheepan said...

Here is my best educated guess at what makes a genius. This may shed some light on some of your questions.

Bob Vance said...

Thanks for the reading suggestion. I have heard elsewhere of this book and have been intrigued. I may have some book reading time coming up soon, and as I have a new tablet, perhaps I will read it that way. For any others following this thread, the link is best accessed by clicking the author's name.

Odd and Eccentric said...

Hi! This article and the comments make interesting reading. I'm just starting to broach the topic on my blog - would it be ok if I linked to this article in my next post on this topic, please?


Bob Vance said...


Please feel free to link to this article. And thanks for your interest and your comment!


Iyathurai Aingaratheepan said...

In my view it is fear that makes a person judge a person of a certain calibre as eccentric, insane or odd. When infact their behaviour or attitude is based on a higher level of thinking. These people offten face prejudice because of this fear, so often left isolated.

Anonymous said...

I agree 100%

Anonymous said...

The few people that have called me eccentric... appeared to be on my side.. they seemed to be rather interested or take note of my eccentric behavior. I did not find it offensive at all. In fact I learned a lot more about myself reading about eccentrics/intj/creative etc etc