Splitting Hairs

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Insanity as an Adaptive Response


It is commonly understood that insanity is a maladaptive response for the insane individual. In other words, insanity is normatively a “bad” thing for any of us. But the truth might be the precise opposite for society generally.

What got me thinking about this was last year’s hurricane season. During Irma, I stumbled over the Twitter page of famed storm chaser Jeff Piotrowski. Like many others, I was looking for moment-to-moment info on the impact of the storm. I found no better source than Mr. Piotrowski.

Watching his videos, reported from as close to the eye of the hurricane as he could get, I had three thoughts: (1) what a blindingly useful human being this Jeff fellow is; (2) wow, Jeff seems bipolar, on a manic high; and (3) #1 follows from #2.

Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that point #2 is an apt observation. The interesting thought, then, is #3.

The idea here is that during times of social crisis, certain insane people go from being the most useless members of society to becoming the most useful.

This strange dynamic has been noted in the study of the psychopathic mindset. A famous example is Winston Churchill — useless in peacetime, but blindingly useful during wartime.

Of course, an underlying assumption here is that “social adaptation” is a coherent notion. That is, the thought is that humans don’t evolve simply as a random collection of singletons; instead, evolution includes considerations of the “tribe”.

So maybe during a time of social unraveling, there are more insane people being produced, and this is an adaptive response of the tribe.

What about suicidal depression? Considered in the context of social crisis, suicide might be recast as “resource hoarding” (i.e. less mouths to feed in times of food shortage).

Hey, as awful as that sounds, consider just how awful it sounds that a person with no sense of feelings whatsoever for his fellow human (i.e. a psychopath) can become, in certain periods of social crisis, the “savior” of his people.

Note to self: ponder the adaptive nature of the Trump presidency …

4 comments on “Insanity as an Adaptive Response

  1. Pira Urosevic
    October 8, 2018

    I think you’re correct.

    Nature abhors a vacuum. It’s a simple law of biology & humans are no exception. There are always a variety of ‘types’ of people (physically & mentally) for adaption purposes. I’ve often argued that this is the reason psychopaths exists.

    Biology doesn’t care about good or evil…it just has one goal: survival.

    What is insanity anyway? Going against the norms and/or belief system of a given group. Humanity would have had a very short rein on this planet, if we’d all be nothing more than lemmings charging toward a precipice, because
    very one of us was tightly bound to identical world views. It’s the iconoclasts that allow our species to survive in order to moralize another day. After all….even amongst lemmings, there are a few that decide not to take the plunge and are left to carry on. 😉


    • peter
      October 8, 2018

      Well said Pira. I wonder if there are studies on this dynamic. A classic example is music stars. e.g. Bruce Springsteen. I’ve read his biography and he appears to have been manic depressive in his youth, with a number of suicidal periods during the depressions. It seems it was this insanity that made him a particularly popular artist. Now in his 60s, he’s been on psychotropics for the last few decades, stabilizing him, keeping him alive, and … rather boring in his re-tread rocker tours.


      • Pira Urosevic
        October 18, 2018

        I was not aware of Bruce Springsteen’s mental health issues, but I am fairly certain the argument that artistically creative minds are slightly out of step with the plodding norms in society has been noted and written about….extensively. Was it nature/nurture or a genetic lightning strike? To make great art, does a person have to be chemically off centre an/or more sensitive to their environment? There are so many variables that it becomes a case of comparing apples, oranges and gerbils.

        Here’s a question for you; Is artistic greatness by definition a product of not only the environment in which they were raised & genetic make-up, but the value a society places upon their creative output? Does highly regarded art of any kind require a positive feedback loop in order to exist or can it evolve in isolation? (I’d say the answer is yes, to both). As an aside regarding insanity; I wonder what percentage of artistics are susceptable to addiction, and how much does an environment which drives & feeds this weakness, stimulate to their creativity?

        In the case of Springsteen …. once his brain chemistry was homogonized to that of societal norms, the music was bound to follow.


  2. peter
    October 18, 2018

    Pira — In answer to your question, my belief is that crazy artists are driven to create from inside, not so much from society. For the lucky ones, like Springsteen, their art is pleasing to the society, and they become famous and rich in their lifetimes. But history is littered with famous artists who were ignored or even persecuted by their own society during their life. And even more artists live and die and are forgotten.

    In fact when these crazy artists start to listen to society and bend their art toward what they think society wants, they tend to become boring, and their art not interesting.

    My only point with this post was that maybe society produces more crazy people when they are needed. That doesn’t mean every crazy person is useful to society. But some are very useful, like Mr. Piotrowski and, some would argue, Springsteen before he turned 35.


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This entry was posted on September 13, 2018 by in health, politics.



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