It is hard to pick up a paper today and not find an upsetting story about mental illness. We are told near daily that anxiety and depression are on the rise; these and other conditions excessively cost the economy ($51-billion per year); and the current approach, whereby people wait for a year or more to see a specialist, while taking a range of pills, sometimes with unfortunate side effects, doesn’t seem to be working.
Against this backdrop, Eric Kandel, winner of a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, has been unravelling the complexities of the mind for quite some time. Whereas most books tend to focus on a single mental disorder, such as a history of depression, for example, Kandel has always taken a synergistic approach, seeing mental illness along the continuum of interesting minds. His theory, which is developed in detail in his latest, The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves, is that we must shift the paradigm. Instead of considering mental illnesses as various forms of limitation, we can view them as simply different types of brain, which may need treatments and accommodations, but whose uniqueness could potentially offer insight, allowing sufferers to make important contributions to the human condition.
The Disordered Mind picks up themes that surfaced in his previous Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain. There, Kandel unpacked the relationship between ego and id, between the consciousness that creates and the subconscious that fuels one’s artistic drives and desire. Artists whose work is emblematic of their time are those who can use their own internal battles to depict the political and economic forces rippling through and challenging society. Austrian artist Egon Schiele’s visual representation of his own anxiety, histrionically represented in works such as Self portrait as semi nude with black jacket, offer a symbolic exploration of fears of early 20th century Vienna, including rapid industrialization, fragmentation of agricultural communities, and the rise of modernism. Those who have struggled with their own minds, those with big personalities, with outsized demands and drives, and whose art documents that battle, writes Kandel, might create great works, but unfortunately, might also be driven mad in the process, whether Schiele grappling with his neuroses, German-Jewish Franz Kafka struggling with depression or Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka externalizing his own and society’s turmoil.
Whereas Age of Insight analyzed the meaning of mental illness, The Disordered Mind explores the science of these conditions, specifically the brain activity and thought patterns that give rise to them. Autism isn’t characterized by just one brain irregularity; instead, it is a complex condition classified by an inability to develop social and communication skills starting at a young age. Many portraits of it focus on the negatives, including rigidity, emotional meltdowns and difficulty handling conflict. In his book, Kandel interviews people living with autism to find out what they enjoy about their condition. The heightening of the senses, says Erin McKinney, who is autistic, means “everything is louder.” While this causes a need for conformity and routine, it also produces a sensory intensity such that “the everyday, the mundane, the typical, the normal – those things become outstanding.” Normal life is lived in an intense, poetic sensibility. For this reason, those living with autism often excel in creative fields such as music, literature or art.
Similarly, schizophrenia is characterized by excessive pruning of a type of brain neuron growth called dendritic spines. This pruning, which happens mainly during adolescence, leads to auditory or visual hallucinations, loss of executive functioning and feelings of self-importance and grandeur. But it can also lead to distinctive thought patterns and connections, such that those with milder forms of the disorder may be able to harness their unusual brain activity to find interesting solutions to complex problems. As proof, Kandel lists a diverse range of artists and thinkers, including writer Jack Kerouac, Nobel Prize winner in economics John Nash, musician Brian Wilson, and law professor and author Elyn Saks, who despite having the condition, have been able to mostly keep their symptoms in check with drugs and psychotherapy, allowing them to live independently and work.
This is exciting territory, for Kandel offers not a documentation of mental illness as disability, but the science of difference. The discussion demands reframing, not only around mental illness, but also around its treatment. The statistics on mental illness tend to make for depressing reading: For example, Canadians in the lowest-income group are three-to-four-times more likely to report poor-to-fair mental health, according to Statistics Canada. Unemployment rates are as high as 70 per cent to 90 per cent for people with the most severe mental illnesses. By focusing on those who have been able to tame their unusual minds, albeit with significant help, he holds out that rarest of jewels in such books about mental illness: hope.
Alexandra Shimo is the author of several books, most recently Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve.