Through the microscope

My PhD superviser,  was known to a great many people for being rude. A visiting speaker once came to our Institute and announced that he was “The Rudest Man in Science”. I think he probably is. I’ve not met anyone nastier than him and I have not led a sheltered life. I watch the TV programme House and chuckle because Gregory House is supposed to a very rude man. My PhD supervisor was several orders worse. A vile human being. He was into psychological warfare, too smart for violence. He belittled people, he was obstructive, he humiliated people, he tried to make people look and feel stupid, he criticised them personally and professionally and he got punched on at least two occasions that I know of. He had complaint letters pinned on the wall from people he had insulted at conferences and he was proud of them. He was never racist or sexist any other -ist. He was a scientist and to hate someone for their race or sex would be illogical. he wasn’t insecure, he just enjoyed hurting people.

Most of the PhD students he was responsible for left before completing because he offered no support and bullied them. I went to other labs to get the help and information I needed. I knew everyone in the Institute and a lot of people at other Institutes and Universities. I trotted off to Oxford to learn how to section for microscopy, I phoned and emailed people all around the world. He considered this a failing, I considered it to be standing on the shoulders of giants.

Everyone who helped me came under fire. Anyone who helped me was a has-been or a wanker or a washed-up idiot.  I found myself an unofficial supervisor, a very pleasant human being who I still speak to on Facebook, he also happened to be my supervisor’s biggest rival. My unofficial supervisor read my thesis, he supported me, he organised and attended my viva voce. He was the reason I made it through. The day I was awarded my PhD the supervisor I had ditched came marching into the office to ask me to prove I could make a 1 molar solution because he didn’t believe I could do it. Not that it ever stopped him using my buffers…

Although he was a pathetic excuse for a human being he was a brilliant scientist. He still is a brilliant scientist. He’s now a Professor at Rothamsted Research Institute working on GM oil crops. I’m sure his work is as brilliant as ever but I shall never understand why a man as talented and intelligent as him felt the need to be so mean. If I saw a news article stating that he had falsified data I wouldn’t believe it. I hate the man but I have the utmost respect for him a scientist. Genius or madman? Genius. He wasn’t mentally ill. If I believed he was it would be easier to cope with.

Which brings me to the subject of madness and creativity. Lots of psychological studies have concluded that people with serious mental illnesses such as bipolar are creative and/or highly intelligent. I’m not convinced for several reasons.

1) Most of these studies are retrospective. They look at well known historical figures and diagnose them with mental illness or sanity posthumously. The history books have taken very little notice of scientists or women. There are (relatively) few biographies of great scientists and few of women which makes comparison tricky. The data is dodgy and that’s without touching on culture.

2) Not all eccentric behaviour is a symptom of mental illness yet mentally ill people can be eccentric. An eccentric person may behave strangely when well and when unwell. Not all bad behaviour occurs because of mental illness (even in the mentally ill). It’s very hard to diagnose anyone posthumously. Isaac Newton may have suffered from severe depression or he may have been a cantankerous old goat. Perhaps he suffered from mental ill health and he was a cantankerous old goat too? How will my PhD supervisor be viewed by history?

3) Most of these studies compare artists with scientists. Why? They are not comparing creative with non-creative. Why assume scientists to be less creative? Look around and tell me that scientists aren’t creative! We have space probes, we have information pouring into our homes, we have medicine and technology and these people are saying science is lacking creativity? I beg to differ. All we lack is flying cars and that’s debatable. They are comparing creativity of one kind with creativity of another kind and claiming one kind is more creative. That’s subjective. All you can conclude from most of the research is that based on dodgy data gathered posthumously, artistic people are more likely to be crazy than scientists. You can’t conclude that creative people are more likely to be mentally ill by comparing creative people with other creative people.  Even if you modernise and compare living artists with living scientists there are pitfalls. There’s a strong possibility that mentally ill scientists are less likely to succeed in their field than mentally ill artists. Long hours, a great deal of study required  and almost certainly less tolerant of the mentally ill. A different culture.

4) There are plenty of intellectually less able people with mental health problems. I have worked with kids who have special needs. Kids who can’t read or write well and who never will’ kids who lack abstract thought. Kids with Down’s Syndrome for example. They’re never going to top the IQ charts and few of them are creative in the psychological survey sense of the word but they are still people with (for want of a better word) – souls. They can still suffer from depression, PTSD, hallucinations. They can still feel mental anguish.

5) Very few scientists are Philistines and very few artists are Luddites – even my nasty PhD supervisor collected art deco pottery. As technology marches on the distance between art and science decreases. We create for each other. Computer programmers designing photo editing software. I rest my case.

I’m not anti-psychiatry. I’m a big fan. I’m not against the investigations and studies but they have to be done properly. posthumous diagnosis and viewing artists and scientists as opposites is silly. Art and science have a great deal in common. I wouldn’t want to be without either.

Comments on: "Creativity and mental illness (rant)" (2)

  1. I agree with your findings. 🙂

    And I think that guy and my manager of the moment must have hatched from the same egg.

    Congrats on surviving him. Not many people could.


  2. I’m always amazed that I survived. When I look back it’s incredible. I wrote up 2/3 my thesis while pregnant, I finished writing up whilst caring for a baby who never slept for longer than 50 minutes and who screamed constantly. I submitted my thesis a few days after moving house and had my viva a week after burying my father. Oh, I got divorced from my first husband while I was writing up as well. He resented me doing a PhD because he had failed his first degree (he partied too hard) and was working as a lab technician. His mother used to send me letters listing all my faults and suggesting I do a secretarial course instead of a PhD to make her son feel better. That wasn’t at all stressful!

    At the time I believed my supervisor. I believed I was crap but I was stubborn and refused to fail. I needed to prove I was good enough. Now I look back and I’m very impressed with myself.

    My second (and present) husband was a rock too.

    Good luck with your manager. I’d suggest a few trips to Human Resources. I never did that, there wasn’t an HR dept as such back then. Nowhere to turn. Keep a written record of everything he does that is inappropriate. Times, dates, who was present. You can install audio recording devices on smart phones too if it becomes necessary. You’ll feel like an inadequate moron at times but protecting yourself is important. You shouldn’t be put in a situation where you have to do it.

    He’ll probably claim it was all just a joke and you have a poor sense of humour as bullies always do. It’s victim blaming. Good manners cost nothing.


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