Strange Brains and Genius

The Secret Lives of Eccentric Scientists and Madmen

Clifford A. Pickover
Plenum and Quill Publishing
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"Men have called me mad but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence -- whether much that is glorious -- whether all that is profound -- does not spring from disease of thought -- from modes of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect." - Edgar Allan Poe
"If a man cannot keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears however measured or faraway."
- Henry David Thoreau

   Weird Scientists -- two words that conjure visions of eccentric researchers marching to drumbeats which no one else can hear. In repressive times, they've been persecuted, but in more enlightened eras these nonconformists have had the freedom to make great contributions to science and society. Are their minds like our own, or are they so different that these geniuses should be viewed as entirely different beings? What do geniuses have in common, and how can we foster their continued emergence? Is there a link between their obsessions and their creativity?

   In this book, I'll avoid the well-known, influential eccentrics: the mad monks, kleptomaniac kings and Wall Street sages. I am interested in scientists and philosophers with strange obsessions and compulsions. For example, early in Strange Brains and Genius, I discuss two electrical geniuses: Nikola Tesla, who had a fear of pearl earrings, and Oliver Heaviside, who replaced his furniture with granite blocks that sat in bare rooms like the furnishings of some stone-age giant. Most of the geniuses discussed in this book were celibate and never married, but through their energetic nonconformity they have achieved greatness and changed our lives for the better. Interestingly, all the geniuses discussed in this book showed signs of brilliance in childhood. Most were ambitious and concerned with their reputations. Most had deep convictions about the correctness and importance of their own ideas. Very few had extraordinary parents. All had obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Most were born in Europe. Most had a parent who died early. However, not all scientific geniuses follow these rules. For example, Einstein didn't talk until he was three, and his humility is well known.

   This book is organized into three parts. In Part I, I profile several geniuses with obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Any discussion of temperament and genius is best served by examining one life in some depth, and none better illustrates the complex association than inventor Nikola Tesla with whom we start. At the end of Part I we take a break from the biographies of obsessive-compulsive geniuses to explore the obsessive-compulsive disorder itself. Individuals afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder are often compelled to commit repetitive acts that are apparently meaningless such as persistent hand washing, counting, checking, and avoiding.

   In Part II, I include a smorgasbord of short subjects ranging from IQ to the influence of the brain's structure on behavior; however, this book will not explain great scientists' behaviors in terms of brain anatomy. This would be impossible. For one thing, most of the great brains were not preserved and studied. However, Einstein's brain has been pickled for posterity, and, although he was not obsessive like the others in this book, I'll spend Chapter 12 describing his extraordinary brain convolutions.

   In Part III, I discuss how individuals were selected for this book, summarize my thoughts on the association of genius and strangeness, and briefly describe the effect of other disorders such as bipolar disorder and temporal-lobe epilepsy on creativity, religion, and even the alien abduction experience.

   We may safely assume that there is a biological root to many of the unusual behaviors of great scientists. Recent theories suggest that obsessive-compulsive disorder, for instance, results from imbalances in the brain's chemistry. For example, afflicted individuals have brains that are depleted of an important brain chemical called serotonin. Today, drugs such as Anafranil are prescribed to help people with obsessive-compulsive disorder because the drug increases the amount of serotonin. Anafranil, known to biochemists by its chemical name "clomipramine hydrochloride," is also helpful in treating obsessive- compulsive behavior in animals, especially in stopping dogs from licking their wounds so that the wounds can heal. Prozac (fluoxitine hydrochloride) also affects serotonin levels and can reduce obsessive-compulsive behavior as well as depression.

   As I considered the lives of a number of especially creative scientists, inventors, and philosophers, I was impressed by the number of individuals who had curious deficiencies mixed with their more obvious talents. And although this book is not intended to be an academic analysis, we can still ponder the question: can mental illness convey creative advantages to great scientists? Most scientists do not exhibit bizarre behaviors, and most people with mental disorders do not possess extraordinary creativity. However, a significantly large number of established artists have mood disorders such as bipolar disorder. In fact, it appears that both major depression and bipolar disorder can sometimes enhance the creativity of some people. So while we cannot say that the neurotic behavior of some great scientists causes their greatness, it likely plays a role. (Bipolar disorder, also called manic-depression, is a genetic illness characterized by states of depression and mania that may alternate cyclically. Bipolar disorder is closely related to major depressive, or unipolar, illness; in fact, the same criteria are used to for the diagnosis of major depression as for the depressive phase of bipolar disorder.)

   Great eccentrics have intrigued historians for centuries. For example, Jeremy Bentham, the British philosopher who promoted the idea, "the greatest good for the greatest number of people", fell in love with rats. He also advised rich people to plant embalmed corpses of their ancestors upright and above ground along stately drives. Joseph Nollekens, the 18th Century British sculptor, loved to eat the gristle and fat found on the butcher's floor as well as rancid butter. Charles Kay Ogden, Britain's most brilliant linguist, was a claustrophiliac -- he loved to be shut in small places. Catholic naturalist taxidermist Charles Waterton turned animal corpses into effigies of famed Protestants, and after his wife died, he never slept in bed again, preferring the floor. Occasionally he would hide behind couches and attack guests like a dog, chewing at their ankles.

   These are just a few samples of what I call "strange brains." Many of these great minds have had the compulsion to oddness, and I could go on and list hundreds of artists, musicians, and industrialists. But now it is time prepare yourself for the main subject of this book, the influential scientists, inventors, and philosophers. In exploring these geniuses, we explore ourselves.


"It is, so say humans, the most important thing in the world, but it looks as interesting as intestines, and indeed was frequently drawn formerly as if intestinal, a tube from start to finish. Our forefathers were more intrigued by the pulsing heart, the moody spleen, the color-changing liver, the wandering and peristaltic gut. Even urine, in their opinion, held more excitement than the brain." - Anthony Smith, The Mind

   Sometimes you are a brain-snatcher.

   You imagine yourself the Chief Curator of a futuristic museum of brains. You walk down florescent corridors filled with gray, wrinkled things stored in formalin-filled jars to prevent decay.

   On your left are the brains of the brilliant writers, artists, and composers who had bipolar disorder (manic depression), a genetic illness characterized by states of depression and mania that may alternate cyclically: Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Cole Porter, Anne Sexton, Vincent van Gogh, Gustave Mahler, John Berryman, Edgar Alan Poe, Virginia Woolf, Herman Hesse, Mark Rothko, Mark Twain, Charles Mingus, Tennessee Williams, Georgia O'Keefe, and Ezra Pound. In one smaller bottle are some fragments of Ernest Hemingway's manic-depressive brain -- all that is left after he blew his brains out.

   You give a little tap on the jar marked "Poe." His cerebrum jiggles like a nervous mango. Never more, never more. Genius and insanity are often entwined. You put Poe back in his place.

   Today you are not interested in the artists and writers but in the strange brains of great scientists. Instead of having bipolar disorder, many great scientists in your collection were obsessive-compulsive -- they felt compelled to commit meaningless repetitive acts such as excessive hand washing, collecting, or counting.

   You walk a little further, wrinkling your nose at the strange chemical odors.

   On your right are a few clear pickle jars. You reach for the one marked "Isaac Newton," open it, and drag your fingers lingeringly over his gray-white frontal lobes. Might there be remnants of his genius preserved in his neuronal networks: the time he formulated the law of gravitation or studied the nature of light? Could some fossil of his hatred towards his father and mother be buried within his brain's strata -- like an ancient ant trapped in amber? How could this greatest scientist have been such a suspicious, neurotic, tortured person? There were so few students going to hear Newton's lectures at Cambridge that he often read to the walls.

   The brain: three pounds of soft matter that can take a split second of experience and freeze it forever in its cellular connections. A 100 billion nerve cells are the architecture of our experience. Recent studies have even shown that human talents are reflected in our brain structure. As just one example, consider the dendrites -- tiny branches that convey signals to nerve cells. It turns out that machinists have more dendrites in certain areas of their brains than salesmen, who are less clever with their hands.

   Is Newton still here in the wet organ balanced in your palm? Could we reconstruct his memories? Would Newton approve such a breach of privacy?

   You replace Newton and glance longingly at some of the other scientist brains in your possession: Oliver Heaviside, an eminent, brilliant Victorian mathematical physicist whose nails were always cherry pink; Henry Cavendish, one of the greatest scientists in British history who made discoveries in diverse fields of chemistry, electricity, and physics but who was so shy that he ordered his female servants to remain out of sight or be fired; Sir Francis Galton, distinguished British explorer, anthropologist and eugenicist, known for his pioneering studies of human intelligence, who once resolved to taste everything in the hospital pharmacy in alphabetical order. He got as far as "C", and swallowed some castor oil. Its laxative effects put an end to his gastronomical experiments.

   Heaviside, Cavendish, and Galton are perhaps better preserved than Newton. Their brains are perfused with glycerol and frozen to -320 degrees Fahrenheit with liquid nitrogen. Your cryonicists friends refuse to give up hope that memories still reside in the brain cell interconnections and chemistry, much of which is preserved. Maybe they are right. After all, far back in the 50's, hamster brains were partially frozen and revived by British researcher Audrey Smith. If hamster brains can function after being frozen, why can't ours? In the 1960s, Japanese researcher Isamu Suda froze cat brains for a month and then thawed them. Some brain activity persisted. Even as far back as 1891, Dr. Varlot, a surgeon at a major hospital in Paris, developed a method for covering people with a layer of metal in order to preserve them for eternity. This approach, however, probably did not appeal much to those hoping for eventual resurrection.

   But what if there is an afterlife? You bang on the giant thermos bottle containing Oliver Heaviside's brain, causing the brain to make a splashing sound like a drunken fish. When he died his brain was immediately frozen. Therefore, if there is an afterlife, he must have already experienced it by now. What would happen if his brain were revived?

   You shake your head to change your direction of thoughts.

   There is one gem missing from your collection: Nikola Tesla, a visionary genius, a great electronics inventor, a man disturbed by round objects, particularly the pearls in women's jewelry.

   You press a time-travel button on your belt and are transported to the day of his funeral service: four o'clock, January 12, 1943. You huddle in the back of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. A shiver runs along your spine.

   There are over 2000 people. Honorary pallbearers include Dr. E. F. W. Alexanderson of General Electric, Dr. Harvey Rentschler of Westinghouse, W. H. Barton, curator of the Hayden Planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History, and Professor Edwin H. Armstrong. New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had just read a moving eulogy to Tesla over radio station WNYC. The President and Mrs. Roosevelt express the country's gratitude for Tesla's scientific contributions. Three U.S. Nobel prize winners in physics -- Robert Millikan, Arhtur Compton, and James Franck -- participate in the eulogy calling Tesla "one of the outstanding intellects of the world who paved the way for many of the important technological developments of modern times." Author Louis Adamic eulogizes, "Tesla lives in his achievement, which is great, almost beyond calculation, and an integral part of our civilization, our daily lives, our current war effort. His life is a triumph."

   You press your time-travel button again, this time to stop time. You are still in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Five o'clock, January 12, 1943. It is time to remove Tesla's brain for study in the future. You come forward, gaze into his emaciated face, and begin your work.

   The scalpel feels as cold as an icicle.

   "Ah," you sigh, eagerly gazing at cranial nerves 3, 4, and 5. They had orchestrated his diaphragm's contraction in livelier times. He won't be needing these, you think as you pluck the nerves like banjo strings.

   This is Tesla. Tesla, who harnessed the alternating electrical current used today. Tesla, who invented radio, florescent lighting, bladeless turbines, primitive robots. Why were his last years spent in cheap hotels feeding pigeons?

   Reaching underneath the brain, you sever his spinal cord and tie a piece of twine around the base of the brain. The brain will be suspended upside down in a jar of formalin so that it will maintain its shape. After several weeks in formalin it will become more solid.

   His brain is in your hand. No one will notice the missing mass when his remains are cremated at the Ferncliffe Cemetery at Ardsley-on-the-Hudson in the deep cold of a winter afternoon.

   You gaze up into the sky through a broken stained-glass window and spot three pigeons, wings outstretched and motionless, flying toward the amber disk of the sun.

   The sunset is like a flock of pigeons on fire.

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