## 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

A couple of weeks back, I stumbled upon an article I had written for Huffington Post India a few years back about what it is like to live with ADHD.  Until HuffPost India shut down, if you googled my name, one of the first links that you would find was this article. Now, the public version of the article is lost for posterity.

In any case, the draft lives on in my email outbox, and I have since forwarded it to a few people. This is how I begin that article:

There is a self-referential episode in the Mahabharata where sage Vyasa tries to get Ganesha to scribe the Mahabharata. Ganesha accepts the task, but imposes the condition that if Vyasa stopped dictating, he will stop writing and the epic will remain unfinished for ever.

If you have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), you would ideally want to work like Ganesha writing the Mahabharata – in long bursts where you are so constantly stimulated that there is no room for distraction. ADHD makes you a bad finisher, and makes you liable to abandon projects. You could be so distracted that it takes incredible effort to get back to the task. Once you are distracted, you might even forget that you were doing this task, and thus leave it unfinished. Moreover, ADHD makes it incredibly hard to do grunt-work, which is essential in finishing tasks or projects.

And earlier today, during on of my random distractions at work, I started thinking that this is not the only instance in the Mahabharata where ADHD makes an appearance. If you look at the Mahabharata in its fullest form, which includes the Bhagavad Gita (which, it appears, is a retrospective addition), ADHD makes yet another appearance.

If you distill the Bhagavad Gita to its bare essentials, the “principal component” will be this shloka:

??????????????????? ?? ????? ??????
?? ?????????????????? ?? ?????????????????? ?-??

In Roman scripts—

Ma Karmaphalaheturbhurma Te Sangostvakarmani

Googling threw up this translation (same site as the above quote):

The meaning of the verse is—

You have the right to work only but never to its fruits.
Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor let your attachment be to inaction.

And I was thinking about it in the context of some work recently – for those of us with ADHD, this is a truism. Because unless we hyper focus on something (and the essence of ADHD is that you can’t choose what you want to hyper focus on), we have no attachments. It is like that “Zen email”.

Assume that there is a gap between the completion of the work and the observation of the “fruits” (results) of the work. By the time the fruits of the work are known, it is highly likely that you have completely forgotten about the work itself and moved on to hyper focus on something else.

In this case, whatever is the result of the work, that you have moved on means that you have become disattached from the work that you did, and so don’t really care about the result. And that makes it easier for you to appreciate the result in a cold, rational and logical manner – if you happen to care about it at all, that is.

The only exception is if you had continued to hyperfocus on the work even after it was completed. In this kind of a situation, you become excessively attached to the work that you have done (and to an unhealthy level). And in this case you care about the flowers, fruits, seeds and subsequent plants of your work. Not a good state to be in, of course, but it doesn’t happen very often so it’s fine.

The other thing about ADHD and “moving on” is that you don’t get possessive of your past work, and you are more willing to tear down something you had built in the past (which doesn’t make sense any more) and start rebuilding it. Again, this can both be a negative (reinventing your own wheel / wasting time) and a positive (ability to improve).

Random line I just came up with – on average, people with ADHD are exactly the same as people without ADHD. Just that their distributions are different.