Highly Intelligent People and Depression: A Strange Relationship

Highly Intelligent People and Depression: A Strange Relationship
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

There’s a common tendency to see artistic, mathematical, or scientific geniuses as “sulky” creatures. Somewhat strange, and very tied to their strangeness. Think of Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, even Amadeus Mozart. Brilliant, creative, exceptional minds — with tragic anxiety.

But is there anything truth to all that?  Is there a direct link between a higher IQ and depression? Well, to start, higher intelligence doesn’t necessarily contribute to the development of any mental illness.

However, there is indeed a certain predisposition towards excessive worry, self-criticism, and a distorted, usually negative, worldview. In many cases these factors create ideal conditions for depression.

That said, we should mention there are exceptions, of course. In our society we have brilliant people that make the most of their potential by investing not just in their own life, but in society itself. Still, many studies and books demonstrate this unique relationship to depression, especially in people with an IQ over 170.

The Personality of  Highly Intelligent People

The Creative Brain” is a very helpful book for understanding how the brains of the smartest and most creative people work. Neurologist Nancy Andreasen meticulously demonstrates the significant tendency that geniuses in our society have to develop certain disorders: bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety attacks, and especially panic attacks.

Even Aristotle showed us in his time that intelligence goes hand-in-hand with melancholy. Geniuses like Sir Isaac Newton, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Charles Darwin suffered from long periods of neurosis and psychosis. Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Vincent Van Gogh all took the frightening step of ending their own lives.

Those are all well-known figures, of course. However, there have always been silent, misunderstood, solitary geniuses living in their own little worlds. They live very disconnected from a world that seems too chaotic, meaningless, and disappointing to them.

Studies on Highly Intelligent People

With his daughter Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud studied the development of a group of children with IQ’s over 130. In his study he discovered that almost 60% of them ended up developing a major depressive disorder. There’s also the celebrated work of Lewis Terman, a pioneer of educational psychology in the early 20th century.

It was in the 60’s when a long study of highly capable children began. Children with an IQ over 170 participated in one of the most famous experiments in the history of psychology. They called these children the “termites.” It wasn’t until the 90’s that they started to draw some important conclusions from the study.

Van Gogh

Intelligence: A Heavy Burden

The “termites,” Lewis Terman’s children who were now middle-aged adults, demonstrated something interesting. T here is a link between high intelligence and lower levels of life satisfaction. Granted, a lot of them achieved fame and important positions in society. But many also attempted suicide more than once or fell into addictive habits like alcoholism.

Another significant aspect revealed by this group of people is a special sensitivity to the world’s problems. And they don’t just worry about inequality, starvation, or wars. Highly intelligent people are bothered by egotistical, irrational, and illogical behavior. 

The Emotional Blind Spots of Highly Intelligent People

Experts tell us that highly intelligent people sometimes develop dissociative personality disorder. They see their lives from the outside, like a narrator who uses third-person to see with meticulous objectivity, but without feeling like they’re fully a part of it.

Highly intelligent people and depression.

This focus causes “blind spots.” It’s a concept that has a lot to do with emotional intelligence, which Daniel Goleman discussed in an interesting book by the same title. They’re self-deceptions, serious errors in perception. It’s when we choose what to focus on and what to ignore in order to avoid responsibility.

So what highly intelligent people often do is exclusively focus on what their environment is missing. The things out of sync, the egotistical parts of the world, a world they can’t fit in. A lot of the time they don’t have emotional skills to find peace in this confusing world.

Another thing we can deduce about highly intelligent people is that they are often lacking in one critical area: emotions. That brings us to another conclusion: maybe we should add another factor to IQ.

We’re talking the wisdom factor, the knowledge we need to be happy in our daily lives. It’s undeniable: wisdom is so important for your self-image, self-esteem, and having a happy life.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Penney, A. M., Miedema, V. C., & Mazmanian, D. (2015). Intelligence and emotional disorders: Is the worrying and ruminating mind a more intelligent mind? Personality and Individual Differences74, 90–93. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.10.005
  • Navrady, LB, Ritchie, SJ, Chan, SWY, Kerr, DM, Adams, MJ, Hawkins, EH, … McIntosh, AM (2017). Inteligencia y neuroticismo en relación con la depresión y la angustia psicológica: evidencia de dos grandes cohortes de población. Psiquiatría europea43, 58-65. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eurpsy.2016.12.012
  • James, C., Bore, M., & Zito, S. (2012). Emotional Intelligence and Personality as Predictors of Psychological Well-Being. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment30(4), 425–438. https://doi.org/10.1177/0734282912449448

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.