IQ and mental health

It’s possible that I’ve written about this before, but I’m too lazy to check. I just saw this tweet by Baal about what he calls the “Aaron Swartz syndrome” (of brilliant people lost to mental illness because they put too much pressure on themselves).

(and yay, tweets are publicly visible again)

Baal’s tweet here is about a mutual classmate who we lost over a decade ago.  And this tweet triggered off a thought that I’ve had regarding pattern recognition, and which I might have written about earlier.

Fundamentally, what makes us intelligent is our ability to see patterns. Before the advent of modern “advanced linear algebra”, the difference between giving instructions to a human and to a computer was that the latter had to be incredibly specific. The human, on the other hand, could get approximate instructions, and then quickly see patterns in what they were observing, and get the job done.

Even a lot of “advanced linear algebra” works the same way. You give it a bunch of data, and it uses some mathematical transformations to “learn patterns” about the data, and then looks for these patterns in hitherto unseen data to make predictions. So what makes “artificial intelligence” intelligent is that it can use maths to divine patterns.

I remember taking this Mensa test when in college. It was all about pattern recognition. Four images given, and you need to figure the best fifth image to complete the sequence. That sorts. And Mensa claims to be a “club for the insanely intelligent”, and they use pattern recognition as a means to identify the more intelligent humans.

I can go on but I think I’ve provided sufficient evidence arguments on how intelligence is basically about pattern recognition. The more intelligent you are the better you are at identifying patterns.

Now what does it have to do with mental health?

The answer lies in false positives.

The problem with being good at pattern recognition is that sometimes you can tend to overdo it. You start seeing patterns that don’t really exist. I must mention here that I got over my extremely long-term and fairly deep depression back in 2012 when I was asked to deliver a few lectures on logical reasoning – explaining to my lecturees that correlation does not imply causation convinced me of the same, and I started feelingbetter.

So – because you are good at pattern recognition, you end up seeing too many patterns. I remember this from business school – I saw a bunch of people eating lunch together and thought I’ll go eat with them. And then I noticed a pattern among the set of people (something silly to the effect of “they are all from Section A, and taking this marketing elective”) that didn’t apply to me. And suddenly I decided I didn’t belong there and didn’t go to sit with them.

On that day I remember this happening multiple times, and I finally ate my lunch alone. Now thinking back, this was silly of me – and I had voluntarily brought upon myself unpleasant thoughts (“I don’t belong in this group”) and loneliness.

This is just one example – such things regularly happened through the decade of the 2000s. I would see demons (patterns, basically) where none existed. I would overthink decisions like crazy. I would bring loneliness upon myself. I would make random correlations, that would only serve to depress (“oh, my lucky shirt hasn’t dried, so I won’t be able to do well in today’s exam” types).

Generalising – what you see is that the better you are at seeing patterns, the more the spurious patterns you see (in advanced linear algebra, we call this “overfitting”). And these spurious patterns end up affecting you, and clouding your judgment. And making you less capable of leading life.

I keep thinking, and saying, that my engineering class has been especially badly affected by mental illness. In the class of 30 odd, we’ve lost two people to suicide already (including the person Baal mentioned in his tweet), and know of several others who had mental illness severe enough to either drop out, or take semesters off.

And given that the class was largely made up people from the extreme right tail of the distribution in a highly competitive entrance exam, I’m coming to believe that correlation exists – all of us being superior pattern recognisers, have been prone to recognising spurious patterns, and many have fallen prey to mental illness, to different extents.

PS: I found one blogpost I’ve written about this topic


One thought on “IQ and mental health”

  1. There is speculation about it.

    That said, the causation might be due to nurture. The ability to be highly successful in one area (scoring high in the IIT-JEE, and possibly in subsequent exams) might not relate to being “successful” in life (doing groundbreaking research, entrepreneurship etc. Thus, they may consider themselves failures due to not being outliers outside academic life as well.

    Another factor, that I – who is definitely nowhere close to intelligent – feel about myself is that academic life was unambiguous. You have defined milestones and defined outcomes. So, it is easy to focus on the work that you have to do to create that positive outcome. Hence, we are fond of sports as well – easy target, easy process, and ability to control, for the most part, our behaviors to focus on the target.

    Life is very messy. First, there are no clear goals, stuff happens to derail you, outcomes (and sometimes even the processes) are not within your control, and this leads to cognitive dissonance. “Hey, I used to be so good at figuring stuff out, how is it that I am so helpless?”.

    Therefore, to substitute this ambiguity and get a sense of achievement with pre-defined targets, I began to take part in road-races (leading up to marathons), create goals for myself with cycling, and weight training etc. I get a feeling of control of my destiny in these areas and therefore, when stuff happens in other areas (career), I am a bit more relaxed now that I am older. When I was younger, I used to beat myself up for outcomes that were not in my control. (The worst aspect of this is comparison. The “dud” who was in school/college doing materially better than me made me beat myself up even more. It was only much later that I realized the impact of chance and thinking probabilistically and being content with having put in 100% effort, helped.)

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