math & manic-depression, a Faustian bargain

In the wake of a colleague’s suicide and the suicide of three students, Matilde Marcolli gave an interesting and courageous talk at Caltech in April : The dark heart of our brightness: bipolar disorder and scientific creativity. Although these slides give a pretty good picture of the talk, if you can please take the time to watch it (the talk starts 44 minutes into the video).

Courageous because as the talk progresses, she gives more and more examples from her own experiences, thereby breaking the taboo surrounding the topic of bipolar mood disorder among scientists. Interesting because she raises a couple of valid points, well worth repeating.

We didn’t can see it coming

We are always baffled when someone we know commits suicide, especially if that person is extremely successful in his/her work. ‘(S)he was so full of activity!’, ‘We did not see it coming!’ etc. etc.

Matilde argues that if a person suffers from bipolar mood disorder (from mild forms to full-blown manic-depression), a condition quite common among scientists and certainly mathematicians, we can see it coming, if we look for the proper signals!

We, active scientists, are pretty good at hiding a down-period. We have collected an arsenal of tricks not to send off signals when we feel depressed, simply because it’s not considered cool behavior. On the other hand, in our manic phases, we are quite transparent because we like to show off our activity and creativity!

Matilde tells us to watch out for people behaving orders-of-magnitude out of their normal-mode behavior. Say, someone who normally posts one or two papers a year on the arXiv, suddenly posting 5 papers in one month. Or, someone going rarely to a conference, now spending a summer flying from one conference to the next. Or, someone not blogging for months, suddenly flooding you with new posts…

As scientists we are good at spotting such order-of-magnitude-out-behavior. So we can detect friends and colleagues going through a manic-phase and hence should always take such a person serious (and try to offer help) when they send out signals of distress.

Mood disorder, a Faustian bargain

The Faust legend :
“Despite his scholarly eminence, Faust is bored and disappointed. He decides to call on the Devil for further knowledge and magic powers with which to indulge all the pleasures of the world. In response, the Devil’s representative Mephistopheles appears. He makes a bargain with Faust: Mephistopheles will serve Faust with his magic powers for a term of years, but at the end of the term, the Devil will claim Faust’s soul and Faust will be eternally damned.”

Mathematicians suffering from mood disorder seldom see their condition as a menace, but rather as an advantage. They know they do their best and most creative work in short spells of intense activity during their manic phase and take the down-phase merely as a side effect. We fear that if we seek treatment, we may as well loose our creativity.

That is, like Faust, we indulge the pleasures of our magic powers during a manic-phase, knowing only too well that the devilish depression-phase may one day claim our life or mental sanity…