Economist Nash Addresses APA on Evolution of Mental Illness
> 7/11/2007 11:02:08 AM

Psychiatric News reported this week on a speech that John Nash gave at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. Nash's speech was remarkable not just for his controversial speculations about the evolutionary benefit of some mental illnesses, but also for the fact that he was able to make such cogent arguments when he himself has struggled with schizophrenia for much of his life. Nash worked through paranoid delusions that he was being spied upon and confusing hallucinations to make such impressive contributions to mathematics that he was awarded a Nobel prize.

The thesis of Nash's argument is that:

Humans are notably subject to mental illness because there was a need for diversity in the patterns of human mental functions.

He suggests that in the competition between species, it helps to have a wide distribution with members at the extremes able to handle very specialized tasks. He drew a startling parallel between warrior ants and human poets.

While it is controversial to say say that adaptations survive because they are good for the species as a whole, Nash's expertise at game theory means that his´┐Żcomments cannot be dismissed without careful consideration. Extremes on the mental spectrum may be good for the species and good for the individual, who may gain a competative advantage from a unique mentality.

The notion that mental illnesses have genetic benefits has been explored by other researchers. Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor at Johns Hopkins struggling with mental illness like Nash has, wrote Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament to argue that artistic geniuses are likely to be manic-depressive. She marshals an impressive array of historical examples as well as modern studies to make her case.

Dr. Dennis Kinney explored the possibility that genes for schizophrenia aid family members without the disorder. In a 2001 adoption study, Dr. Kinney found that biological children of schizophrenic parents were rated more creative by objective observers with no knowledge of their family history.

It is possible that Nash's speech will spur new research that will uncover evolutionary links to mental illness. But even without such links, successful figures like Nash are inspiring because they show that a diagnosis of mental illness does not require the abandonment of intellectual ambition.

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