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Some kind of crazy

August 4, 2011

There is a reason why the notable leaders of history all seem crazy. Or, at least, so says Tufts University professor Nassir Ghaemi.

Winston ChurchillIn his provocative, fascinating new work, “First-Rate Madness,” Nassir Ghaemi, an author and professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, argues that many of history’s most famous and admired figures, from Churchill to FDR to Gandhi, showed signs of mental illness — and became better leaders because of it. Ghaemi bases his argument on historical records and some of the latest experimental studies on depression and mania, arguing that mild symptoms can actually enhance qualities like creativity or empathy. Gen. William Sherman’s bold march through the South during the Civil War, for example, was actually spurred by his mania, while Churchill’s and Abraham Lincoln’s depression gave them the strength to make it through their more difficult hours.

Thomas Rogers interviews Ghaemi for Salon.

I think if most people knew that their leaders were making important decisions, like, say, about the debt ceiling, while going through a manic phase, they would be concerned.

It’s important to get out of this all-or-nothing thinking. It’s not that you’re either completely normal or in control or completely manic or out of control. Mental illness can come in many degrees of severity; it can be mild, moderate or really severe. When people are mildly to moderately manic they have what are called racing thoughts, going down different tangents that a person normally wouldn’t, and this often produces creative links that most people would not make. Those lead to judgments that lead to decisions that often end up being correct and helpful and would otherwise not happen. Manic people, especially when their symptoms are mild or moderate, can make much better decisions than mentally healthy people who often make very poor decisions.

While conventional wisdom is generally silent on the subject for the sake of dignity, I think most people realize that in the modern world, you have to be crazy to want to be a president, prime minister, or even banana republic dictator. The only real question is what kind of crazy are we voting for.

John Ray reminds of the paving in Hell. Jerry Garcia reminds us to enjoy the ride.

-bd

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