Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Genius and Madness

In the Dopamine Primer 2, I covered the four major dopamine tracts in the brain.  Today I'll break down the two most important ones to psychiatrists and anyone interested in the fabulous story of human evolution and greatness, the mesolimbic and the mesocortical pathways.

For simplicity sake (as mesolimbic and mesocortical don't have a whole lot of meaning unless you are versed in neuroanatomy, also because the mesolimbic system ends in the cortex so it is also mesocortical, and that's hella confusing), I'm going to call them the "medial" and "lateral" dopamine tracts respectively.  The medial tracts go from the center, primitive, animal parts of the brain up to the emotional centers of the brain, and then to the front part of your brain (literally the center of your forehead, more or less).  The lateral tracts go from the center, primitive, animal parts of the brain up around the outside and end up more by your eyeballs (more or less).

Both tracts carry dopamine, but the tracts are responsible for somewhat different human behaviors.

The lateral tracts are responsible for:
Future-orientation in predicting events
Strategic thinking
Rational, abstract thought
Focus and control

Someone who has an optimal amount of dopamine in the lateral system is going to be self-contained, practical, self-confident, and able to forgo immediate gratification in order to ensure greater reward later on.  He or she might be the perfect person to bring with you on an expedition somewhere.  However, an extreme "lateral dopamine" type person wouldn't be the one you might confide in with emotional problems.  Also, on that expedition, if you break your leg and no longer become practical, it might be just a little too easy for he or she to leave your burdensome self there in the wilderness.  So the dark side of dominant lateral tracts would be grandiosity, ruthlessness and sociopathy.   

The medial tracts (more emotional in nature rather than rational thought) are responsible for:
Future-orientation in exploration (motivation and drive)
Creativity (along with paranormal experiences and psychosis)
Hyperactivity and impulsive behaviors
Euphoria and pleasure-seeking

A more medial dopamine personality might be a bit wacky, impulsive, and free-thinking.  A hippie or an artist.  Not particularly good at planning, but often compelling, creative and interesting.  Maybe not the first person you would want to take into the wilderness, but perhaps capable of intuitive leaps of logic that could get you out of a real jam.  And as it is the serotonin/norepinephrine right brain tracts that are more responsible for emotional sensitivity and understanding social cues, the medial dopamine dominant personality may not be particularly empathetic, and might wander off and leave you alone in the the wilderness as he or she might think of something better to do.  The dark side of the medial dopamine dominance would be psychosis, paranoia and irresponsibility.  (Keep in mind that these are all generalizations - all the tracts interact in complex ways so there is rarely any such thing as a pure "medial dopamine personality.")

Too much excess in the medial dopamine tracts leads to madness.  Irrational thought, paranoia, loose thought associations, psychosis.   In just enough excess it is creative genius.  Families with schizophrenics are also more likely to have more creative individuals.  And many people considered geniuses also suffered madness, such as Nobel Prize winner John Nash, a schizophrenic who had this to say when asked how a mathematician devoted to logic and proof could believe that extraterrestrials were sending him messages:  "Because... the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did."   Unfortunately, since schizophrenia is ultimately an inflammatory  neurodegenerative disease, it is unlikely that a genius suffering from schizophrenia could maintain brilliance for more than a few adult decades. 

It is an interesting observation of Previc's The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History in that these two tracts seem to line up with Freud's separation of the human mind into the ego and the id (the id here being primitive drives of sex and pleasure-seeking, loose thought processes, and impulses of the medial dopamine tracts, whereas the ego weighs risks and benefits before jumping into any particular course of action - a lateral dopamine action.  Freud's superego, or the conscience, is more likely more associated with those socially directed serotonin/norepinephrine right-brained tracts).  

Estrogen has a tendency to inhibit dopamine (allowing for a greater dominance of social empathy, balance and those norepinephrine/serotonin pathways), whereas testosterone will tend to enhance dopamine.  In the agricultural past, dopamine dominance has allowed for greatness and male dominance - Previc lists the following famous men in history and their "dopaminergic traits":

Alexander the Great - high intelligence, visionary, motivated, risk-taking, self-confident, but also grandiose, ruthless, restless, and paranoid.

Columbus - intelligent, visionary, motivated, self-confident, risk-taking, but also grandiose, ruthless, and restless.

Newton - extremely high intelligence, visionary, self-confident, motivated, but obsessive, lacking empathy and social skills, ruthless, paranoia, and neglected personal hygiene from time to time.

Napoleon - intelligent, visionary, motivated, risk-taking, self-confident, but with delusions of grandeur, ruthlessness, and restlessness.

Einstein - extremely high intelligence, visionary ideas, high motivation, self confidence, but had obsessiveness, lack of empathy and social skills, grandiosity, and personal hygiene neglect.

Which brings me to the present day, where is some respects things have flip-flopped between men and women, at least in America.  According to a recent article in Time Magazine about the "Sheconomy,"  young single urban women outearn young single urban men, and while 35% of women aged 25-29 have a college degree, only 27% of men do.  There is something going on (socially, in culture, environmentally?  I could barely hazard a guess)  that is making it easier for women to remain focused on long-term productive educational goals (a dopamine trait) in their youth.  Women now own 1/3 of the businesses in America.  As women still pay a major career penalty for having kids, and previous generations still control the Fortune 500, women have not cracked the higher echelons quite yet.  But the Generation Y numbers could indicate that it is only a matter of time.  And women still have the estrogen/serotonin/norepinephrine advantage of better being able to read social cues, which is an a helpful trait in sales, business, and even politics if coupled with enough grandiosity.

In an agricultural world, vision, ruthlessness and sociopathy allowed for one man to grab all power at the expense of his neighbors, creating kings.  In a post-industrial world, the hyperdopamine advantage may not be quite so simple.


  1. Interesting. Perhaps Gen Y is mislabeled and should really be called Gen XX.

  2. Outstanding!
    Since this is an Evolutionary minded blog would you venture to analyse Darwin along the Medial/Lateral dopamine axes?

  3. Aaron - cute!

    Miki - I seem to recall several accounts in which Darwin was a pretty nice sort of fellow. Seems to me he was intelligent (Previc calls that a lateral dopamine trait), visionary (lateral and medial) and creative (medial), a bit restless (medial, associated with impulsivity), but I don't recall too much sociopathy or ruthlessness (when Wallace was going to publish the same ideas, Darwin published with him rather than work to suppress Wallace, after all). So tending more towards medial with enough lateral to focus it and rein it all in?? And Darwin, with his bent toward the clergy maybe had a bit of a conscience. Perhaps Darwin was more "feminine" in his brilliance with some serotonin/norepi balance on board...

  4. Fascinating!

    I´ve worked with mentally disabled people. Many times have I wondered about what was happening in their brain.

    Your focus on the brain makes your blog so interesting.

    So we could maybe blame the second world war on Hitler´s extreme lateral dopamine?

  5. Anna - I read a very interesting book on the history of the 20th century that reported remarkable similarities among the totalitarian/fascist dictators from Stalin to Hitler to Pol Pot to Mao to Kim Jung Il's dad and even Saddam Hussein - (though Hitler and Stalin get the most press, Mao killed the most people with his policies, starving 20-40 million people, and Pol Pot managed to kill something like 30% of the population of his country) all were charismatic, driven, visionary, and incredibly paranoid and ruthless. Not all were particularly intelligent.

  6. Boy, er, girl, I need to read this blog more often ! So much here -

    But after reading this one, after I got over the spooky part as a human being using their intellect can indeed study the brain in great detail (I once was checking out the back side of the brain in pictures, and my god, it looked like something from the movie Alien, or that alien in the movie Predator, where the two optic nerves cross over ? and deeper in ? it really looks like an alien in there - KEY WORD - LIKE Dr. Deans, no need to see a psychiatrist on that one, just saying LIKE an alien heh heh) ?

    You got me thinking here - for humor sake I'll share - this is in response to the 'other type' that may just leave you in the woods ?

    IF it's dopamine related ?

    The concept of a 'compassion pill' came to mind and I pictured, hmm, this is audio, but I use an image reference, even if I say imagined, indeed, we don't have a word for audio whiteboarding, but - I imagined someone saying "Here, Larry, take a compassion pill (some L-Dopa pill maybe)" heh heh... SO THAT they might be closer to type I there in the story.

    These blogs are just packed with information.

    I better go check my mega millions ticket though and return to work I'm supposed to be doing ! well, work, but I went and said I'd work for free again ! lol- in 2000 ? Software engineers were given CARS as sign on bonuses in Boston, now ? (I'm in PA - the 'other' commonwealth- lol) ? now ? I have to offer services for free, and MAYBE if I'm lucky, there will be a job in it ! lol.... HuffPost said today 60% of those unemployed have been unempoloyed over a year - I'm in that category - gotta be smart to live poor in a first world industrialized nation state defined by static territorial boundaries on dynamically shifting moving tectonic plates... talk about a model with a double bind built right into it - almost as rough as the double bind of a Christian American, which is it ? Monarchial rule by God for the Universe ? or Democratic rule by man ? You have to be Schizoid I think to be a Christian American. I'm with physicist David Bohm, nationalism DIVIDES humanity, I like to say it stopped serving humanity August 7th, 1945, I always correct the date to be respectful of what day it WAS in Japan that day.

  7. Remember, James Joyce says the Genius and the Schizophrenic swim in the very same waters, but the genius swims where teh schizophrenic sinks.

    All I know is, even WITH the help of Joseph Campbell's Skeleton's Key to Finnegans wake ?

    I can't make heads or tails of it, silly coin keeps landing on it's side (ok ok , I just added that last part, just came to me, but heh, intent was to derive humor, thoguht that last comment was a bit over the top on the double binds embedded into nationalism, when we live with a global media share, in a global economy, but are somehow ? still complacent as if through Stockholm syndrome - to accept a fragmented model of humanity only to be patched up by religion with pat on the back saying Good job religion for defragging the hard drive of humanity that wouldn't have been dragmented if we managed the data model better in the first place)- hmm - darn, I ended up frustrated on derivations of persona through nationalism 'Gin...

    I once picked up Focault's Madness and Civilization, bought it at a book sale because I thought the title was neat, kept it above my bed and in my teens finally opened it. My oh my - Focault's Ship of Fools that towns in Europe would send the unwanted off on, it's like an Eli Lilly anti-psychotic convention these days. Just ship em off on tranquilizers and shut em up. If I derived ANY value from that book, as Camille Paglia was an influence that left me with less respect for Focault's pipe dreams in the end ? is Focault's model of a social hierarchy and that when applying hierarchy to society ? Someone, er some GROUP has to be the bottom rung of the latter. To which without that bottom rung ? we'd not have so many psychiatrists to remedy that social disposition !JUST KIDDING JK JK Dr. Deans - I think you're a breath of fresh air to the sector, and I hope there are more like you ! I got to thinking, what are modern day bottom rungs though... Probably a bipolar terrorist with AIDS would meet criteria of across the board degenerative social status in the world. Heretic was the bottom rung at one point, 1950's communist was... We've moved onto terrorist now I suppose, if you think about it ? as we live in a global economy ? global media share ? which came OUT of nationalisms response after being painted into a corner ? I'm tempted to say from any natoin state perspective ? Any anti-nationalist is probabbly - at least under the Bush era, as a terrorist, in fact, I do recall John Ascrhoft saying, if you're not with us ? you're a terrorist - YIKES ! He must not have gotten the recent DOJ OSI report stating we paid Klaus Barbie $1700 a month and even let him into the US SEVERAL TIMES up until his death in 1979. Who would have guessed the US hired over 4,000 Nazi's and yet ? everything must be forfeited as to citizen rights in the name of national security- gee, I'd think hiring 4,000 Nazi's was a strange move regarding national security. heh - uh oh, "Driver is OFF target" I feel like I'm testing out the device in the opening of the movie Brainstorm ! lol - welp - I am OFF to get something done and stop procrastinating.

  8. This fascinating Emily, thanks for the post.

    I have noticed that there is a big tendency towards string procrastination amongst more creative-intuitive people (or, to put in in Myer Briggs terms, those who score high in the variable P).

    It would appear that the development of some cognitive traits come at the expense of the under-development of others. Before reading your post I thought it was more of a wiring issue. Now it seems it's might be more of an "irrigation one".

    btw what's your stand on Myer Briggs?


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