The Link Between Disorder and Genius: An Interview with Dr. Gail Saltz

What's the flip side of psychological disorder? Is there a link between illness and genius? This week on the podcast, psychiatrist and author Dr. Gail Saltz shares how many diagnoses--from ADHD to depression to anxiety--come as a package deal with a hardwired strength.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
March 10, 2017
Episode #145

Savvy Psychologist: Today, we’re lucky to have with us Dr. Gail Saltz, who brings us a really interesting idea, which can be summed up in the title of her new book: The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius. In the book, she looks at the flip side of disorder and shows how many diagnoses—from depression to anxiety to ADHD-—can link to a hardwired strength. Dr. Saltz, welcome to the show!

Dr. Gail Saltz: Thanks so much for having me. 

SP: In your book, you introduce a new term, "brain difference."  What is a brain difference?

GS: I tried to use this as a global way of understanding brains. We tend to think that if you have something going on, you must have something very broken. That's our society's current way of viewing things, as if there's this clear line between healthy and mental illness. And there really isn't. There's a project going on called the Connectome Project, where they're looking at thousands of "normal subjects" to study brain variation, because we don't actually have a current brain map.

And what is already apparent is that there is tremendous variation in brains - in structure, in connectivity, and in the ways that structures are connected to each other. There's always going to be some sort of bell-shaped curve, where things tend to fall in a wide range in the middle and then, of course, there will be things that fall on the end that maybe cause particular kinds of symptoms—symptoms that cause high anxiety, or that cause deep depression, or bipolar disorder etc—and those differences are just that: different. But we have tended to think of different as bad, and what I'm trying to explain in my book is that symptoms can be bad, and they can definitely make us suffer, and they should be understood and treated, but at the same time, when you have a difference, there's often a tie to very particular hard-wired strength. I think it's particularly important for the many people who suffer from these differences, as well as their loved ones and friends, to be able to search for that strength, and play to that strength, and nurture that strength, particularly in children.

When you have a difference, there's often a tie to very particular hard-wired strength.

SP: There's a quote in the book that says "the flip side of challenges are often the brightest sparks of genius," and it made me wonder: does everyone with a brain difference have a flip side strength?

GS: Very good question. The answer would have to be no. People that are very ill, even if they had a strength, probably couldn't exhibit it because they're so impaired by their symptoms. So for example, even if you have something in the schizoprena-form range that causes some very unusual thinking, that actually might be a strength, in that you're having very original thoughts. But if you are ill and have pyschosis, you can't manifest those thoughts, you can't enact them, you can't plan them and have them come to fruition because your illness is preventing that. So in that sense, if you're very ill the answer turns out to be no.

On the other hand, if you are completely healthy, and have none of these issues, the answer also might be that you might not be amongst the most creative of us. You might be a great planner, you might be great at various things, but the most creative people who have very unusual and particular strengths of different sorts often turn out to have some kind of difference going on. But it's either treated or it's mild. That's where high creativity and some other very particular strengths tend to lie. I will also say that a big factor that has to do with exhibiting one's strengths has to do with intelligence, so if you have an illness that has really cognitively affected you, then it may be difficult to exhibit a strength. There are other factors that play into exhibiting one's strength, like determination, resiliency, and so on. But it turns out that many people have very particular, hard-wired strengths that they either don't know about, they've never been exposed to, or they're in a system, such as an educational system, that doesn't help them to be able to spend any time with that strength and develop it because they're spending so much time trying to shore up their weaknesses.

Want more? Tune in using the top right hand player, or on iTunes or Stitcher to hear the rest of the interview, including:

·      why some individuals can tap into their flip side strength and others can’t

·      how to find the “sweet spot” between typical brains and brains that are hindered by disorder

Dr. Saltz is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital/ Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.  She is a psychiatrist, columnist, bestselling author, television commentator, and magazine contributor and has been featured on Oprah, Dateline, Fox News, Anderson Cooper, The Today Show, Good Morning America, and many others. Pick up a copy of her newest book, The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius, wherever books are sold.

You can purchase The Power of Different on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, and Booksamillion.

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