No, I'm not being driven mad by my work, but I have had the occasional crazy professor...
December 1, 2008 4:02 PM   Subscribe

Is there any truth to the stereotype of the absent-minded and/or mad professor?

Can you point me towards empirical research about rates of mental illness amongst university professors, graduate students and other people whose professions require intense, high-level intellectual work? Do they experience higher rates of mental illness than people of similar affluence whose jobs are less mentally demanding? (I realise every job is demanding in its own way, but I'm pretty sure that my job, indeed most jobs, are not as intellectually intense as doing ground-breaking theoretical physics fourteen hours a day).

I'm curious about the popular notion that the brain is somehow vulnerable to 'overuse' in the same way muscles and bones are vulnerable to physical overtraining. This seems to be a huge oversimplification, but the notion of people being 'driven mad by their work' is quite common in popular culture (cf: 'A Beautiful Mind', 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance', many others). If there is any evidence of a correlation, has there been any research on the direction of causation? Are intellectuals drawn to their work because they're already a bit obsessive, or can heavy intellectual work really drive a person mad?

Have any institutions chosen to view mental illness as an occupational hazard inherent to the work itself, rather than as a risk within individual employees? Is there anything else interesting you can tell me about the way mental illness is dealt with in academia?
posted by [ixia] to Science & Nature (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
One thing to consider is the structure of the workplace in terms of how apparent mental illness or eccentricity would be, or how tolerated. In my sense of things, as a graduate student, the academy allows far more leeway for professors for behaviors considered eccentric than private industry would. No idea about frequency of mental illness, but I am skeptical about that common trope that one's work drives one mad.
posted by foodmapper at 4:25 PM on December 1, 2008

No, but when very smart people without terribly complex social skills speak in public or go in the public eye they are usually mocked for being "weird" or "crazy." Anything that deviates from the norm requires a label it seems. Shame really.

'driven mad by their work' is quite common in popular culture

Im sure its very tempting for authors to play on stereotypes. This isnt proof of a phenomenon its just hack writing.
posted by damn dirty ape at 4:30 PM on December 1, 2008

There are situations where mental illness can be considered an occupational hazard. However, it's not academia that you want to look. It's the military.

PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is only now becoming considered 'reasonable' for those on the front lines. Moreover, looking at accounts of people with jobs like Stanislav Petrov (although not him in particular), you can find higher-than-normal prevalences of breakdowns. Although breakdowns are not necessarily the same as mental illness.

Lastly, look into research on the psychological studies of astronauts, south pole workers, etc - people who live in extreme isolation.

As far as academia - I call confirmation bias on it. It's only somewhat prevalent, every field has obsessives.
posted by Lemurrhea at 4:36 PM on December 1, 2008

The absent minded, socks don't match, lectures instead of conversation, style prof is an Aspergoid stereotype. It isn't that studying causes you to go nutso, it's that if you happen to have the only thing going for you is an obsessive love for topic X, a field that pays you to obsess over that topic is quite likely to be where you end up. When many of the highest achievers in the field are mentally abnormal (though I’m loathe to argue by definition, wanting to do physics 14 hours a day is not the typical head state of the average human) this feeds a stereotype.

The character from "A Beautiful Mind' certainly did not go mad from his subject matter, and I don't think the intent was to imply his work caused him to fracture. Nash (and his son) just had the misfortune to inherit schizophrenia along with being a math genius. I only have the people I know as a model, but among my genius family members, there was usually something seriously wrong with them, not as a result of doing research-y type stuff, but from birth. Honestly it feels like the academic achievements that they managed to achieve were out of a desperate need to justify self worth in the face of being broken, or to self medicate the pain of their condition, like an obsessive compulsive trying to assuage anxiety by cleaning.
posted by Phalene at 4:54 PM on December 1, 2008 [3 favorites]

I doubt academia makes you absent-minded, but you can survive in academia longer while being absent-minded than you can in more practical arenas.

If no one ever tells you your socks don't match, it's easy to stop caring. That having been said, those academics who can manage to match their socks (or interact reasonably with other humans) still have the advantage over those who can't (absent other differences in mental prowess).

I do think working in an esoteric field for years affects your thought patterns; doing the same kind of thinking repeatedly makes those thoughts more natural to you. It is easy to slip into old habits of thought; but I think this can happen to anyone. Play tetris for a while and you'll start trying to fit all the forms around you into lines so they disappear; do physics for enough years and yes, sometimes you'll think of human interactions in terms of PDEs. Both behaviors look odd to the outside observer but neither is a sign of being broken.
posted by nat at 5:15 PM on December 1, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, these are all great answers.

I just wanted to add that I'm very much aware of confirmation bias, the diverse forms that mental illness can take, the multiple possible causes of mental illness and the possibility that some mental quirks are naturally comorbid with very high intelligence. I'm not arguing for a causational correlation on the basis of a few pop culture references.

That's why I'm interested in empirical data. Studies of illness prevalence often take occupation as one of many variables. I'm interested in whether the vast body of mental health research has anything interesting to say about mental illness rates in academia, and if so, whether institutions have responded to this in interesting ways.
posted by [ixia] at 5:27 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Academia itself does not necessarily produce bad social skills. Yet, many departments today are structured in ways that make community-building impossible, and this creates professionals who do not engage socially while at work. This, in turn, tends toward bad social skills, quirks, neuroses or worse. While my experiences are in a major city (which, ironically, are notoriously bad for facilitating collegial communities), I hear that smaller colleges, where faculty need to lean on one another more, stick together in reading groups and socials, facilitate more healthy personal environments and relations. They also tend to mix their social and professional lives more, bringing the family and other loved-ones to department events, having potlucks, going out for dinner or drinks. The faculty I've met from colleges not in major cities are, in general, more down-to-earth (the "idiocy of rural life" notwithstanding!). Yet, take these overall base structural considerations, add 70 hours or writing and reading, often focused on the same question from multiple angles, with texts that you can't easily turn to someone and discuss (even with colleagues!), and you've got a toxic cocktail for social ineptitude.
posted by dskinner at 5:30 PM on December 1, 2008

Studio 360 just did a piece on Tesla ( and hit on some interesting Mad Scientist stereotypes they think came from the media's portrayal of him at the time.
posted by Echidna882003 at 6:21 PM on December 1, 2008

There probably is a bit of confirmation bias, but I think there's something to the absent-minded professor. The picture is usually of somebody so preoccupied with their research that they have difficulty concentrating on other things. There is good evidence that this occurs in all people, not just scientists. I recall there was a recent report that concluded that we are better suited to tackling one task at a time and that we are not really well suited to "multi-tasking".

Most professors I know are usually preoccupied with the the administrative demands of their work (which is too tedious and mundane to really cause any kind of absent-minded manifestation). But professors who have secretaries and other people that take care of these things, and can spend more time reading the literature and thinking about problems... I think they might be more prone to forgetfulness. Of course, when you have somebody remembering things for you, you can afford to e absent-minded.

I don't know about the mental illness side. I know a few absent minded scientists (especially the ones that are really into their research), but I don't know any mad ones.

Einstein was supposedly incredibly absent-minded during his later years, btw.
posted by kisch mokusch at 9:35 PM on December 1, 2008

Best answer: These might get you started, I can email you the second one if you don't have access.

Work and mental health: High-risk groups

Author(s): Vezina M, Gingras S


Times Cited: 4 References: 38 Citation MapCitation Map beta
Abstract: Analysis of the Quebec Health survey identified those Quebec industrial sectors and professions in which workers are at risk of higher psychological distress and lower psychological well-being. Risk levels were measured by odds ratio, controlling for: health status, sex, social support and stressful life events. Results show that those at risk are blue collar workers and less qualified workers of traditional sectors. Lower job latitude could explain those results. Results show that risk of mental health problems is significantly higher in the following industrial sectors: leather, chemicals, paint and varnish industries; urban bus transport and taxi; shoe, clothing and textile retail stores; department stores; restaurant services; insurance and public administration (excluding defence). Risk of mental health problems is higher in the following professions: road transport (excluding truck drivers); textile, leather, fur manufacturing and repairing; housekeeping and maintenance; painters, tapestry-workers, insulation and waterproofing; food and beverages sector; data processors; editors and university professors.


Maladaptive perfectionism, hassles, coping, and psychological distress in university professors

Author(s): Dunn JC (Dunn, Joshua C.), Whelton WJ (Whelton, William J.), Sharpe D (Sharpe, Donald)

Source: JOURNAL OF COUNSELING PSYCHOLOGY Volume: 53 Issue: 4 Pages: 511-523 Published: OCT 2006
Times Cited: 2 References: 89 Citation MapCitation Map beta

Abstract: This study examined the roles of hassles, avoidant and problem-focused coping, and perceived social support as mediating the relationship between maladaptive perfectionism and psychological distress in a sample of university professors. Hassles and avoidant coping both partially mediated a strong association between maladaptive perfectionism and psychological distress. These results are discussed in terms of the need to better understand how coping styles and social support are associated with the negative impact of perfectionism on the lives of university professors. The implications of these findings for counseling practice are also explored.
posted by Rumple at 10:49 PM on December 1, 2008

Best answer: Google Scholar or PubMed would be good places to start a search for this kind of thing. A little bit of Google Scholar work turned up the following two:
Karlsson, J.L. Relation of mathematical ability to psychosis in Iceland.
Clinical Genetics (1999): 56: 447-449.

A study of mathematically gifted Icelanders demonstrates an increased risk of mental illness in their ranks. Psychotic disorders are also frequent among their relatives. Linkage of academic records with previously published data on the family distribution of psychosis reveals a pattern compatible with the hypothesis that high arousal plays a role in reasoning ability.

Stack, S. Occupation and suicide.
Social Science Quarterly (2001): 82: 384-396.

Objective. Research on occupation and suicide has neglected multivariate models. It is not clear, for example, if persons in alleged "high-risk" occupations have high suicide risk because of occupational stress associated with the occupation or because of the demographic composition of the people in the occupation. The present study explores the relationship between occupation and suicide for 32 occupational groups. Methods. Data are from the national mortality file tapes, which cover 21 states. They refer to 9,499 suicides and 134,386 deaths from all other causes in 1990. Results. Bivariate logistic regression models find a total of 15 occupations with either significantly higher (e.g., dentists, artists, machinists, auto mechanics, and carpenters) or lower (e.g., clerks, elementary school teachers, cooks) risk than the rest of the working-age population. Multivariate models that remove the demographic covariates of occupation find only eight occupations* with greater or lower than expected risk of death by suicide. Conclusion. The results underscore the need for demographic controls in the assessment of occupational risk of suicide. They are consistent with a previous study based on data from England. The findings provide the first systematic evidence on the problem for the United States.
* I read the paper. Of the eight, doctor, dentist, mathematician/scientist, artist, nurse, and social worker are positively associated with greater than expected risk of death by suicide. The rates among doctors and dentists are especially high. The author notes that sifting into finer occupational categories reveals other differences, e.g., professors and electrical engineers have relatively low suicide rates.

Some search topics you want to consider:
  • "Big Five" personality dimensions/traits, or the "Five-Factor Model" of personality
  • Creativity and mental illness
  • "Premorbid" signs, signals, traits, correlations, associations
  • IQ or intelligence and different types of mental disorder: schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, autism, OCD...
  • IQ or intelligence and choice of occupation
  • Suicide demographics/epidemiology
Some of your questions are more difficult than others to answer. Not everyone affected by a mental illness or neurological condition seeks medical attention. (Suicide demographics count those who don't, although they miss others.) People who actually hold jobs must be those who are not so debilitated by a condition as to have removed themselves from the field; perhaps they are actually less likely to meet clinical definitions of illness. They may be more likely to suffer from "shadow syndrome" versions of a given condition, or not to suffer at all, and instead simply to have extreme neurological or psychological characteristics. Typical human qualities shade gradually into atypical ones and from there into impairing, painful, or dangerous ones. Where to draw the line demarcating the bounds of mental disorder may be an undecidable issue. Unfortunately, as the anti-psychiatry school can tell you, that line is all too often manipulated by politics and not medicine.

Do [university professors, graduate students and other people whose professions require intense, high-level intellectual work] experience higher rates of mental illness than people of similar affluence whose jobs are less mentally demanding?

There are a lot of confounders, counterintuitive associations, and other facets of messy human life that make it difficult to get the right answer. Intelligence is positively correlated with rates of depressive disorders. Low childhood IQ is associated with greater risk of schizophrenia. Low latent inhibition might correlate with increased creativity and affective disorders, but the former only if high intelligence is already present. Certain types of mental illness are so disabling that they usually preclude holding a high-effort job altogether; full-blown schizophrenia is one. Prevalence of mental illness as a whole is inversely correlated with socioeconomic status, IQ, job prestige, consistent employment history, level of education achieved, etc. If you're poor, have low overall intelligence, a low-status job or an erratic employment history, or didn't finish high school, you're far more likely to have experienced mental illness than the average professor of chemistry. On the other hand, if you've held certain types of high-status jobs, scientist being one, you're more likely to have died via suicide than someone of similar socioeconomic status, gender, age, education, etc. who's a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. Academics in certain fields are more likely than the average Joe to have a first- or second-degree relative with a mental illness or neurological disorder.
posted by jeeves at 4:30 AM on December 2, 2008

Best answer: This is the part with hand-waving rationalizations and personal experiences.

Is there any truth to the stereotype of the absent-minded and/or mad professor?

Speaking anecdotally, yeah, in my experience. There are certain traits that are associated with success in academia within recent history: a singleminded focus, the drive to pursue a particular fixation, an educated or monied background, a wife (it's almost always a wife) to take care of daily necessities, unshakable confidence, a touch of arrogance, high intelligence, and probably creativity. You don't need to have all of these to do really well, but you likely need at least a few.

The requirements for focus and fixation, with intelligence, guarantee that you will be drawing from a pool of outliers who are not terribly diverse. They also make it more likely that you will select for people with a disregard for or a lack of interest in the distractions of social customs or practical needs. The mathematics/science side of academia does draw a lot of people with autistic traits, for example. Traits associated with affective disorders anecdotally seem to be more common among arts faculty.

Are intellectuals drawn to their work because they're already a bit obsessive, or can heavy intellectual work really drive a person mad?

People who are sufficiently successful in their "intellectual" field of interest to make it a career or get our attention are more likely to be the semi-obsessive ones for whom their work is all-joyous or all-consuming. They spend more time on one thing, get more done, hence get more noticed.

People who are otherwise mentally healthy can and will suffer from mental and physical illness if placed under high levels of stress. But "madness" qua "madness" — delusions, grandiosity, psychosis, terrible terrors and the fragmenting of reality — requires an inborn predisposition, really remarkable environmental triggers, or both. There are a lot of people who hold jobs that are mentally taxing for them and need 14-hour, 16-hour workdays. Quite a few might experience an episode of clinical depression, and a few of those will have depressive episodes severe enough that they are co-morbid with psychoses. But most people with mentally taxing jobs do not develop schizoaffective or bipolar disorder. The ones who do are more likely to have displayed signs of the disorder before they chose the job, or to have come from backgrounds predictive of its development.

Have any institutions chosen to view mental illness as an occupational hazard inherent to the work itself, rather than as a risk within individual employees?

I can answer only from my own experience in academia in the sciences. Absent-mindedness, abrasiveness, disorganization, social skills deficits, and other oddities of personality are tolerated (occasionally celebrated) as long as they do not affect the person's ability to get science done and publish it. Collaborative work is emphasized more highly now than in the past, as it is now a necessity in some fields; this has resulted in progressively lower tolerance for "difficult" people. Hiring decisions do get made on the basis of personality. Most longstanding faculty are also afflicted with heavy administrative workloads and/or have educational or public relations duties. It is very difficult to do these things if you don't have it together.

For up-and-coming academics, junior faculty, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, and so on, a non-trivial amount of stigma is attached to the revealing of any personal circumstances that might signal that the person in question is less fit for the field or less committed. While there is no doubt that there are a lot of odd birds in the academic sciences, someone who finds the need to disclose a mental health diagnosis is seen as more likely to have their work impaired by the condition. Competition for jobs is fierce.

Recognition of a neurological or psychiatric condition happens if the sufferer is experiencing obvious problems or is prominent or established. Paul Erdös was almost certainly on the autistic spectrum. John Nash dealt with schizophrenia. Dimitri Mihalas has bipolar disorder. Theodore Kaczynski has goodness-knows-what; schizophrenia has certainly been suggested, but whether or not you think he's "mad" is another issue. For every name associated with success or notoriety, there are probably far more belonging to those who quietly dropped away from science as their health deteriorated.

Is there anything else interesting you can tell me about the way mental illness is dealt with in academia?

What we were told as graduate students: "This job will do it to the predisposed. Hide it or drop out."
posted by jeeves at 4:38 AM on December 2, 2008

AnecdotalFilter: I've known a few genuinely brilliant people, and the rate of psychological "differentness" is much higher for that group. There is a correlation between math genius with Asperger's Syndrome. I read an article years ago saying that people in the arts have a much higher incidence of depression. I'm not aware of a correlation between intellectual dullness and mental health, though.
posted by theora55 at 7:07 AM on December 2, 2008

My dad was a professor and now I'm on the road to the same job myself. I think what it is is a disinterest in the norms of the regular world, a sort of, who cares if your socks match, what's that got to do with anything important, sort of attitude, that a lot of people who go into academia have. I always felt out of place in the "real world" because people paid too much attention to stuff like what color socks they wore. (I mean, what could possibly be less important? As long as your feet are warm...)

So, yes, I think there are "absent-minded professors" in the sense that, I will honestly not worry about the small things... But it depends on the professors, too - there are all kinds of people in academia, and these days there are "rock star" academics just as much as "absent minded professors", and standard professionals, too. I think the classic absent minded version may be less common now that the field is more competitive, though you can be absent-minded in your life and still get a lot of work done in your study.

Of course, the stereotype is pretty old - Plato accused Thales of having fallen into a well because he was staring at the sky, e.g...
posted by mdn at 2:42 PM on December 2, 2008

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