Does intelligence protect you from mental health problems?

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It’s tempting to believe that smart people don’t get depressed. After all, the smarter you are, the better you are at solving problems. Whatever is bringing you down, you can just fix it, right?

Humans are great at problem-solving, thanks in part to our relatively large prefrontal cortices (an area of the brain situated just behind your forehead). This area of the brain, along with other neural networks, is responsible for an important group of processes called the executive functions. These functions allow us to have self-control, direct our attention where it is needed, process information, and, importantly, problem-solve. Compared to other animals, human brains perform exceptionally well at these functions.

If we can problem-solve in the outside world, can we use these same skills to solve our internal problems? For example, if we can’t sleep at night because we’re stressed about work the next day, surely the answer is to use our big powerful prefrontal cortices to solve tomorrow’s problems and send ourselves into a peaceful state of sleep? Or, if we’re feeling sad and can’t get out of bed, should we try and use our intelligence to motivate us to get up? How do we solve that kind of problem?

To be clear, I’m not going to argue that you should never try and problem-solve psychological issues. In fact, it could be argued that the first-line psychological treatment for several mental health problems, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), requires a form of problem solving. However, often, human being aren’t great at problem solving their internal struggles (irrespective of their IQ). Intelligent people often attempt to problem-solve their psychological issues in much the same way as less intelligent people. Maybe they try and convince themselves of something positive that they don’t really believe, or maybe they second guess their behaviour or think of every time they have ever embarrassed themselves in the past. In casting all of their attention on a problem, the problem rarely leaves their mind and, instead of solving it, they can just increase the weight of the burden.

Creative People and Mental Illness:

There is a centuries old notion that, not only are intelligent people not protected from mental illness, but that they are, in fact, more likely to experience mental health problems. The stereotype of the crazy scientist or artist come to mind. Great literary minds like David Foster Wallace and Earnest Hemingway, comedians like Stephen Fry and Robin Williams, and artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock all suffered from mental health problems. One of the greatest inventors of all time, Nikola Tesla, was obsessed with doing things that were divisible by three. He used 18 serviettes when he ate, walked around buildings three times before entering them, and only stayed in hotel rooms in which the room number was devisable by three.

In recent times, these ideas have been tested and, so far, the research indicates that intelligence appears to be associated with an increased risk of certain mental health problems. One study found that Bipolar Affective Disorder may be four times as common among young adults who had received straight-A’s in school. The effect was more common among students receiving high grades for humanities subjects and, to a lesser extent, in science subjects.

As a practicing clinical psychologist, I’ve seen countless times that, unfortunately, intelligence does not preclude people from mental health problems. In fact, often times, intelligent people are more attached to this idea of problem solving their internal struggles and can, therefore, require more intensive therapy. The more intelligent you are, the more you’ve seen first-hand that problem solving works. It got you A’s in school, it helped you get a job, it helped you assemble your Ikea chest of draws, it must be able to solve your anxiety.

I guess, in some sense, it could be argued that problem solving is what is needed to get your mental health back on track. However, it’s not the kind of problem solving we’re used to. If your mental health problem was a maths problem, the longer you spent trying to “solve” it, the more complex and unsolvable it would become. That’s because, in trying to solve these problems, you’re giving them your attention. Often, that’s all they need to thrive.

Additionally, some mental illnesses have a strong biological basis. In these cases, asserting that intelligence can protect you from mental illness might make about as much sense as asserting that intelligence can protect you from multiple sclerosis. Indeed, one study found that the neuronal calcium sensor-1 protein was associated with spatial memory and curiosity as well as the presence of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Therefore, there may be some shared biological cause of aspects of intelligence and certain mental illnesses.

It would appear that the impact of intelligence on mental illness depends on the type of intelligence and the type of mental illness. Two constructs not typically measured in traditional IQ tests seem to have a significant impact on mental health; one protective, the other associated with an increased risk of mental illness.

The first construct, creativity, is not usually included in IQ tests because it is difficult to measure objectively. Attempts have been made in the past (e.g., write down as many uses for a brick as you can in 30 seconds), however, they never seemed to have the same reliability or validity as tests of verbal comprehension, working memory, processing speed, and perceptual reasoning. The best we can do when studying the relationship between creativity and mental illness is look at people who are in creative professions and see if they are more likely to have a mental illness. That’s exactly what one study did: Of 300,000 people enrolled in the study, people in creative professions were more likely to meet criteria for a diagnosis of Bipolar Affective Disorder. There’s an assumption here that people in creative professions would generally have greater creative intelligence than those who are not. Nevertheless, the results of the study are interesting.

The second construct, emotional intelligence (sometimes called EQ), is a measure of an individual’s ability to distinguish accurately between various emotions, to identify emotions in themselves and in others, and to use their knowledge of emotions to guide their thoughts and behaviours. High emotional intelligence has been found to be associated with less rumination (i.e., compulsively thinking about your problems) and fewer thoughts that are symptomatic of depression and anxiety. Therefore, it would appear that certain less conventionally recognised forms of intelligence are protective of mental illness. It’s unfortunate that these types of intelligence are not fostered in schools or even seen as particularly important in our dominant culture today.