The link between insanity and genius

Hans Eysenck‘s comment about insanity and genius has become popular  knowledge; so it was the natural choice to head the chapter on Hans Eysenck that I authored for The Psychology Book, published last year by DK.  My challenge, as the writer of that and several other chapters, was to distil Eysenck’s lifetimes work in psychology in a way that illustrated precisely what he meant.  Clearly, he was not suggesting that all insane people are geniuses, or that all geniuses are insane; instead he theorised a complex connection between the two, based upon a particular type of thought pattern, that they share: over-inclusive thinking, the ability to make connections that are many, varied and original.

The Psychology Book has enjoyed great success, along with its sister volumes, The Philosophy Book, The Economics Book, and The Politics Book.  Soon to be added are The Religion Book and The Business Book. The concept of the series is:  Big Ideas Simply Explained, produced in beautiful books, with material presented through text, visuals, charts and tables.

I was one of the six writers who wrote The Psychology Book.  The brief was tight: to write for a non-specialist audience, for the interested reader.  The book was judged so successful in its fulfillment of this brief that it won The British Psychology Society (BPS) Book Award for bringing psychology to the ever widening audience thirsty for psychological knowledge.

Recently, myself and three of my co-authors attended the BPS conference to receive our award.  Two of us, Marcus Weeks and Merrin Lazyan, addressed the conference about the book, and its intended audience:

“…..everywhere you turn, it’s evident that people are extremely interested in reflecting on human behaviour and searching for ways of explaining and understanding our relationships to others and to the world around us. Every time someone makes mention of a Freudian slip or jokes about an Oedipal complex or nods to the notion of cognitive dissonance, they are engaging with a body of psychological work, though perhaps in a way that may not be intended or even conscious. Certain elements of the study of psychology are so culturally embedded that people don’t necessarily realise the history or significance of the ideas that they’re communicating. Psychological principles are widely used in ways that are highly socially visible, such as in business, government, advertising, and mass media. Even our 27/7 social media culture is chock full of examples of the human fascination with, well, ourselves!

One example jumped out at me through my Twitter feed just a week ago. On April 3rd, contemporary philosopher and author Alain de Botton transmitted the following three Tweets in quick succession. The first: “Within psychoanalysis, the term ‘privileged childhood’ can mean one thing only: parental figures who loved you steadily and well;” The second: “An interest in crime news [is] the unconscious recognising its own capacity for madness – and reminding the ego to keep it well chained;” and the third: “We are as unaware of how we function emotionally, as we are of the workings of our liver, thyroid, kidneys…” Within hours, Mr. de Botton touched on attachment theory, psychoanalysis, and psychopathology, all in a mere 367 characters and broadcast to over 352,000 enthusiastic followers. Of course this is just one small anecdote, but it does highlight that in the world outside of academia, outside of laboratories, and outside the pages scholarly journals, people are hungry for and fascinated by the ideas that explain some of our most complex behaviours, and so much the better if we can explain those complexities with simplicity.”

Marcus and Merrin concluded  “….sincere thanks to the British Psychological Society for recognising this book in a way that none of us would have dared to anticipate when we began working on it. We are very honoured indeed.”

And my heartfelt agreement to that!

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