Do drugs aid and abet genius or does genius lead to drugs?

Who is your favorite addict? I guess we have to talk about addiction as a preface to that question.

Everybody I know takes psychoactive drugs, except maybe some Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and the like.

All drugs are habit-forming, but only a subset of psychoactive drugs can produce psychological and physical dependence, tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms when taken away, the usual definition of addiction.

Most people who become addicted to one drug often also take other drugs. But one drug may predominate.

So, who is your favorite alcoholic? So many famous people to choose from. How about Edgar Allen Poe, Mickey Mantle, Betty Ford, Ulysses S. Grant, or Ernest Hemingway?

Who is your favorite tobacco addict? Again, such a smorgasbord of prominent cigarette addicts. Would you pick Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or Humphrey Bogart?

And what about heroin addicts? A different sort of group, but prominent indeed. And if you extend heroin a bit to opium, you might choose Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Dickens, or John Keats.

Cocaine addicts? How about Whitney Houston, Stephen King, or Sherlock Holmes.

Is it that psychoactive drug use, up to and including addiction, is so prevalent that, statistically, one should expect a certain large number of all people to be addicts?

Or is there some kind of association, even a causation, between human or environmental properties that lead both to addiction and to extraordinary creativity, productivity, and prominence on the human stage.

I would love to see some epidemiologist or biostatistician attack that question. Or it could be as simple as availability and plenty of money to obtain the drug.

Meanwhile, you might like to take a look at an extraordinary new book by esteemed medical historian Professor Howard Markel of the University of Michigan called An Anatomy of Addiction to try to crawl into the minds of medical icons Sigmund Freud and William Halsted to figure out how they got hooked, dissect cause and effect, retrospectively and bi-directionally.

Did the drugs aid and abet genius or did genius lead to the drugs, or is it all just happenstance? Beats me; but it is interesting.

And we haven’t even touched those “other addictions” — overeating, oversexing, overtexting, overgambling, overgaming, overexercising, and overinterneting, and their relationship to genius and, may I say, overproducing.

George Lundberg is a MedPage Today Editor-at-Large and former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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  • seeingeye

    Genius is a really lonely state of mind. It sets you apart from the world in several ways: some will persecute because you are smarter, some will stay away because of it. Some will worship, but there’s no room for anyone else on a pedestal. And for the individual with genius the world may be a boring place indeed.

    Imagine having thoughts and opinions, philosophies and ideas and no one to share it with because they are too advanced to be comprehended by those around you. Imagine being able to finish tasks in the fraction of the time that other people take. What do you do to pass your time when everything is too tame to keep your interest?

    All these and more factors combine to create a situation of deep rooted boredom and isolation for the genius mind. You don’t have too many real friends, and you cant find activities that are challenging enough. Drinking/smoking are behaviors that are associated with basic recreation, so the genius indulges in it, mimicking the society they see. It also helps them relax, and other people can relate to them.

    While there may be some “drugs” that abet genius, I don’t believe it either way. Genius is independent of the intoxication. Genius leads to “abuse of drugs” as a genius mind continues to function even under intoxication. Due to more evolved brain processes and neural networks, they would slowly develop a tolerance for the drug/alcohol. This would lead to a need to imbibe more to attain the same state of mind. This, I feel, is what would cause the appearance of addiction. I say ‘appearance’ because the need to imbibe at all may disappear in many cases if the individual has a purpose that will keep their interest for a while.

    I’m no biostatistician, but I have considered this question before and these are the views I arrived at. They are by no means complete as this is a more complicated issue than it seems, but I do hope someday there will be answers.

  • katerinahurd

    Who is the genius who would choose the disease that is addiction over health? Do you have an example you could share?

    • lemaman

      If you believe addiction to be a disease, then they have no choice. Personally, I believe addiction is a choice. Genius fits more a disease model than addiction. Genius is born, not chosen, it is imprinted at conception. It can be nurtured or ignored, so there is an environmental component. Genius addicts do not choose addiction over health, they choose to try to be normal, and mimic normal behaviors to do so (as beautifully outlined in the first response above). I know, I have tested at the genius level, yet found an addiction. I felt like drugs dumbed things down to a level I could be socially interactive rather than aloof and awkward. Having to learn this while sober has been the hardest task ever for me, and also the most rewarding.