What psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz reports in her provocative book “The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius” is that those same brain differences that cause disorders such as dyslexia, depression and autism can lead to more creativity and artistic abilities, more empathy and an ability to visualize things in a different way.
They can lead to examples of genius, said Saltz, who interviewed over 50 experts in the fields of psychiatry, child development and education as well as individuals who have struggled with various learning disabilities and disorders but who have achieved great success.
“We tend to think of these kinds of issues as nothing but bad … and I don’t want to sugarcoat or say obviously that there aren’t problems with having a particular diagnosis, but I do want to say that actually there are very particular strengths that come along with these diagnoses, and knowing what they are allows you to look for that and nurture that in your child,” said Saltz, who has been in private practice as a psychiatrist for over 20 years and serves as a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.
Saltz’s interest in this topic came, in part, from her patients, many of whom were high-functioning and doing remarkable things. “I kept noting very particular strengths that people had who had very particular diagnoses that they were seeing me for.”
Those patients were the inspiration for a series she developed for the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, which examined the relationship between brilliance and mental health disorders in some of the greatest authors, artists and figures in history, such as Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway and Charles Darwin.
“The biggest names you can think of when you think of any particular area in terms of discovery and changing the world for us … they all had a mental health diagnosis or a learning disability or sometimes both, so I was pretty struck by that,” said Saltz, who also hosts “The Power of Different” podcast.
The whole subject of genius has always fascinated her, she says, starting with her younger brother, Johns Hopkins University Professor Adam Riess. He was always unusually creative and skipped a grade in school, she says. In 2011, he became one of the youngest people to ever win a Nobel Prize. (Riess, now 47, won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work with two other scientists showing how the universe is expanding at an accelerated rate.)
“All of these things conspired to make me feel that both I wanted to delve further into the neuroscience behind it and what we know now but I also really wanted to educate the public … to understand the potential,” she said.