Ex Die in Diem

by duncan mcnicholl

Shiny Happy People

I’m not the first person to notice a correlation between people who have the kind of intelligence that leads to high IQ scores and a propensity towards poor mental health. That sentence very nearly ended with the word “outcomes”, until I realised what a weird way of thinking about mental health you must have to consider mental health outcomes to be a viable term. Regardless, the archetype of the troubled scientist/mathematician is well established.

I have an odd relationship with the idea: it often seems like the same kind of fetishisation of mental ill health that leads artistic people away from seeking help as they aspire towards the example of van Gogh, thinking that without the impulses that drove him to self-mutilation and suicide he might not have produced the searing beauty that he did. Even laying aside the idea that beautiful paintings could ever be worth an actual human person’s life, it strikes me as a false dichotomy. The art expresses the pain, but the pain is not the art, and if we can minimise the pain we should minimise the pain. That’s why it hurts, to remind us.

But then again, I’m high-IQ-clever and I struggle to cope with things sometimes: my wheel spins too fast, or I tumble down the slope a ways, or I get stuck in the way things were. I don’t think that there’s any need to have one to have the other, but like with so many things in life, more important than the components is the whole. The interaction of one trait with another, or one person with another, or one idea with another, is where the magic lies. It’s the same idea as the overlap: connection is the truth of things, and if you try to strip away the influences you aren’t left with a pure example of the form. Instead, you’re left with nothing.

The interaction of interest here occurs when a person prone to thought spirals and reactive anxiety is called upon to think about The Big Things. It’s a hobby of physicists to engage in metaphysical conceptualising, because the process of studying and researching fundamental science is one of breaking things apart into their more basic components, understanding those components and rebuilding them to produce a model that works similarly to the observed world. The metaphysics comes in the choice of more basic components, because when one is not constrained by ideas (or realities) of irreducibility, eventually one comes to the most basic components, about which little or nothing is known and understood.

Before I fall too far down a hole of speculation and unknowability and end up at Gödel’s (horrifying) Incompleteness Theorems, I’d like to return to the idea that I’m trying to explore here. In studying these ideas it becomes possible, perhaps even unavoidable, to engage in metacognition regarding the importance of thoughts like these, and the impact that thinking them has on the thinker, and what this means in terms of a search for meaning or a sense of discomfort with ourselves. And if you throw anxiety or depression or negativity or loss of control into that mix, you end up down in that hole with Gödel anyway. And that’s not where you want to be, believe me. You don’t want to be pinned under these thoughts and ideas, wondering about questions without answers, as your resilience drains away.

The thing is, just avoiding thoughts about the universe is like walking around with your eyes cast down, never looking up, never seeing the sky. Exploring the world, even in your mind, is a bright and beautiful and exciting and exhilarating practice, and might just be at the heart of what keeps me ticking over. Like perhaps all of the greatest experiences in life, it carries an element of risk. Too much, too fast or too far, and I risk overbalancing and starting to fall. None at all, though? Unconscionable.

This is from the