In Praise of Crazy

Posted by   Annette on    March 15, 2014

“Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings. Madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.” -- Plato, the Phaedrus

medium_8472777439.jpgIn 2005, a doctor at the Harvard Medical School named Alice Flaherty put some science behind the "gift of heaven" to which Plato referred. In her research, she noticed that pathologies like manic depression and schizophrenia result in "unusual frontal lobe activity." This increased activity directly relates to a spike in idea generation because the patients are physiologically unable to establish "rigid judgments about an idea’s worth."

Flaherty also looked into schizophrenics' overactive dopamine systems -- as did a 2010 study conducted by the University of Minnesota. Both studies found a correlation between a patient's abnormally high dopamine levels and what scientists refer to as "divergent thinking." Divergent thinking is the innovative component of creativity -- the ability for a person to form and communicate off-norm ideas. This ability is predicated on a lack of constraint by societal expectations, and a marked confidence in communicating fanciful, absurd and implausible ideas. (For example, one test for divergent thinking is to give test subjects an object, such as a rock, and ask them to come up with a list of different ways to use it. Divergent thinkers have significantly longer lists.)

The Flaherty study explained how pathologically high dopamine levels can not only cause the symptoms of schizophrenia, but also kickstart "novelty seeking and creative drive," as well as numerous other precursors for creative output. Of course, the correlation between creative fervor and madness goes beyond schizophrenia. Manic-depressive artists often report massive artistic output during their manic periods -- a high proportion of which represents daring, uninhibited, large-scope works. Some M/D artists credit the introspection of their depressive periods with "delivering important insights that manifest" in the material they produce after the torpor of the depression lifts. ADD involves a reflexive rejection of the status quo, a compulsion to question the source of new information and an intense progenitorial curiosity towards exploration -- a powerful combination, to be sure, if harnessed mindfully. People with diagnosed bipolar disorder report being "blessed" with "sharper senses and increased productivity" as well as "increased perceptual sensitivity, creativity, focus and clarity of thought." As the list of mental illnesses stretches on, so does the list of perhaps-surprising gifts inherent in each.

The studies come together in a surprisingly unified conclusion: the evidence heavily suggests that what we define as "mental illness" and what we define as "creativity" aren't just very similar states in both a physical and chemical sense.

They might, in fact, be identical.

Coexisting with mental illness is no picnic. Neither, of course, is the metastatus of being a human person in this world. Turmoil, suffering, angst and emotional extremes are not the sole provenance of the "mentally ill" person. These experiences are common to all humans and are, in fact, integral to the human condition. However, some people experience them differently -- and these people, in turn, seem uniquely gifted with the ability to communicate that experience: as just one of millions of examples, Mexican artist Martín Ramírez (whose rapturously applauded work was all created within the walls of a mental institution).

It's vital, too, to emphasize that the expanded horizons of "crazy" stretch considerably beyond painting. "Broken" brains don't just make art; they embrace incredible things: homegrown, off-the grid architecture, alternative childrearing, the healthful cultivation of open relationships, extreme entrepreneurialism, new economic formats and so much more. Nutcases experiment. Lunatics discover new methods and motivate change. It's the people who are mad as a box of frogs that make our world worth waking up for.

There is a danger, of course, in untreated illness outside a mindful and supportive context. However, there is beauty here that has been too long disrespected. Please know that I am not any kind of doctor, but I have researched the hell out of this. I'm sharing what I've found because I hope that my efforts can help more than just me.
It's time to take back "crazy."

In the most severe cases, there is no question that medication is helpful. However, the overreaching goal should be to preserve the person. Antipsychotic drugs are, like a great many pharmaceuticals, blunt instruments; those prescribed to treat schizophrenia, for example, "primarily target the positive symptoms – delusions and hallucinations – but may not relieve the negative symptoms of reduced motivation and lack of emotion." The medication can easily rob the patient of the inspiration they depend on to motivate their entire inner lives.

As just one example, a 2001 study on the use of Lithium in the maintenance of mood disorders reported that manic-depressives treated with the drug often give account that their life feels “flatter”, “slower” and “more colorless” under the influence of Lithium. Patients sometimes dangerously discontinue the drug in order to feel "alive" again. In every case, the underlying "problem" (if you choose to define it as such) remains active underneath the meds, fighting them at every turn.

Family members may appear to mean well in placing intense pressure on a person to "get help" and medicate; however, that pressure is often motivated by a desire to simplify their own interaction with the disorder and dodge personal guilt. In all but very serious cases, treatment should be a very personal decision. 

medium_122903845.jpgIf you want to stay crazy -- but feel better -- then listen up. Not every treatment format requires psychoactive drugs. Some very reliable sources -- among them the National Institute of Health, the National Library of Medicine, the Mental Health Foundation UK and others -- give exhaustive lists of non-pharmaceutical tools you can use to support your brain's unique requirements. Sure, it's not as easy as popping a pill. It takes effort, and it requires commitment. But it keeps you entirely you, and puts your mental health back in a whole-body context.

1. Get tested.

The major foundations all agree -- you can not overestimate the importance of your diet to your mental and emotional health. A great first step: learn about the micro- and macronutrients that most greatly influence your particular brain's unique cocktail, then invest in a nutrient panel. You don't necessarily have to go to a doctor for this, if you don't prefer to -- you can get one right through the intertubes. You can even self-test for a few deficiencies. 

2. Look into the major factors first.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, "the most common nutritional deficiencies seen in mental disorder patients are of omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that are precursors to neurotransmitters." Cross-border and cross-population studies indicate an improved sense of well-being among patients with mental disorders who take up to 9.6 g of omega-3 fatty acids per day. According to the UK Mental Heath Foundation, "complex carbohydrates as well as certain food components such as folic acid, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and tryptophan are thought to decrease the symptoms of depression." The UKMHF suggests that patients "include [either animal or vegan] protein at every meal to ensure a continuous supply of the amino acid tryptophan to the brain," as artificially supplemented trytophan was deemed inconsequentially effective and unsafe.

3. Cut it out with the sugar.

This might be the most important step you take, as crazy and faddish as it may seem. The most consistent correlation found in one study that involved the ecological analysis of schizophrenia and diet concluded that "increased consumption of refined sugar results in an overall decreased state of mind for schizophrenic patients, as measured by both the number of days spent in the hospital and poor social functioning." The selfsame "dietary predictors of the outcome of schizophrenia and prevalence of depression" were a close match to the factors that predicted coronary heart disease and diabetes: sugar, sugar, sugar in every case. The same seems to be true for bipolar disorder (manic depression), ADD/ADHD and more generalized mood disorders.

4. Micronutrient balance is key.

Several UK studies have associated the problematic symptoms of depression with low levels of zinc, as well as the vitamins B1, B2 and C. In fact, the NIH study found that "eighty percent of bipolar sufferers have some vitamin B deficiencies." The body's natural supply of lithium is massively influenced by micronutrient factors. According to a 2008 study, "essential vitamin supplements [work] with the body's natural supply of lithium [to reduce] depressive and manic symptoms of patients suffering from bipolar disorder." The UKMHF adds that "[those with] low intakes of folate, or folic acid, have been found to be significantly more likely to be diagnosed with depression than those with higher intakes." 

Changing levels of vitamin D3 affect serotonin levels in the brain. Most people know about the prevalence of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during seasons of low sunlight, but somewhat fewer know why: it's because vitamin D "flips the switch" on genes that regulate the immune system and release neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. If your vitamin D receptors are compromised, if you live in a place that gets proportionately little sunlight, or if you simply don't absorb it very well, you're at risk for both serious depression and calcium malabsorption. Here's how to give your body a boost.

Vitamin C is a specific tool for bipolar and BP-borderliners. Excess acetylcholine receptors are a major cause of depression and mania -- especially, apparently, in bipolar patients, whose bodies produce high levels of melancholy-causing vanadium. Nutrition comes to the rescue here again, as a Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation study found that vitamin C "protect[s] the body from the damage caused by excess vanadium." According to the study, "A double-blind, placebo controlled study that involved controlling elevated vanadium levels showed that a single 3-gram dose of vitamin C decreases manic symptoms in comparison to placebo." 

Don't reach too quickly for the Red Bull, but taurine figures in here, as well. A healthy liver makes the amino acid taurine from cysteine; in the brain, the presence of taurine has a calming effect, and deficiency increases the frequency and severity of manic episodes.

ADHD/ADD people seem to benefit most from supplementation with zinc, iron and Acetyl-L-carnitine. Supplementation with Ginkgo biloba, Pinus pilaster (French maritime pine bark) and Bacopa monnieri (Brahmi), an Ayurvedic medicinal herbal preparation, have also been shown to be useful in some studies.

5. Work on your sleep schedule.

For non-traditional workers, those prone to manic episodes and heavy caffeine users, this will take time and perhaps much effort. It's worth it. A University of Bristol study reported in 2008 that an irregular sleep cycle greatly worsens the depressive, anxious "edge" to many disorders. The MHFUK suggests "consistent sleep cycles at least five nights per week" with "a repetitive bedtime and awake time."

If you have trouble, you're not alone. I have had excellent success with valerian tea and strategic magnesium supplementation, but another commonly suggested remedy, melatonin, gave me persistently upsetting dreams. Another thing: look into binaural beats and experiment with them. (Don't want to buy a CD from a hippie bookstore? No problem. You can find binaural beats on Spotify.)

6. Practice yoga.

Seriously. Do it.

Don't take my word for it, though. Take Dr. Eleanor Criswell's, who serves on the advisory board of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, wrote How Yoga Works: Introduction to Somatic Yoga and is a licensed psychotherapist and professor of psychology at Sonoma State University. "Yoga is incredible in terms of stress management," Dr. Criswell says. "It brings a person back to homeostasis. For people who have anxieties of many kinds, yoga helps lower their basic physiological arousal level." That "physiological arousal level" ties intimately in to a person's mood, sense of self, motivation, sense of purpose, ego-concept, compulsion towards short-term chemical self-medication and connective capacity with other humans. It is key, and yoga is one of the world's most confirmed-effective delivery systems. According to Criswell, yoga helps a person become more "somatically comfortable" -- more flexible in both body and mind, which helps the person move with their inner world instead of constantly against it. Yoga helps to build a life in flow.


References & Resources:

Psych Central: The Dopamine Connection Between Schizophrenia and Creativity

Psychology Today: Why The World Needs ADD Adults in the Workplace

Psych Central: The Benefits of Bipolar Disorder

US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: Lithium for Maintenance Treatment of Mood Disorders

Mental Health Foundation UK: Diet and Mental Health

National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine

National Center for Biotechnology Information: List of possible causes and treatments for bipolar disorder including specific doses as well as supplementary information

Stanford Neuroscience: Mental Illness and Creativity: A Neurological View of the “Tortured Artist”

Yoga Journal: Yoga's Impact on Mental Illness

Psychology Today: Psychological Consequences of Vitamin D Deficiency